There is an adage that goes by “Where there us a will, there is a way”, but amidst the pandemic situation, Indian ‘experts’ in the education stream and students seem to have taken the saying to a whole different level with rampant cheating taking place in Home-based GRE examinations. Group effort by a team of experts and the limited view an invigilator gets from webcam — that’s how scores of students in India are cheating in GRE or Graduate Record Examination, the entrance test for graduate studies in the US and other western nations. Several students told news agencies about the meticulous modus operandi of how the cheating is conducted in the home tests that started after the Covid-19 outbreak. The key, they said, was a room with multiple doors, which helps connect the examinee with the expert team outside that solves the paper.

However, cheating by students taking the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) online from their homes, following the Covid-19 outbreak, has been red-flagged by the largest Indian franchise of US-based The Princeton Review. The GRE, owned and administered by the US-headquartered Educational Testing Service (ETS), is a standardized test required for admissions to graduate schools in the US and Canada. In India, 85,050 candidates took the GRE in 2019 compared with 90,146 in China and 3.95 lakh in the US, according to the ETS. Besides informing the ETS about the rise in fraudulent activities, the Indian franchisee has written to the Ministry of Education and Niti Aayog highlighting the ‘moral’ aspect of using unfair means and its impact on student’ quality.

In the “at-home” offering of the GRE, an online proctor asks the test taker to show the entire room using a webcam to ensure nobody else is inside the room. In case of any suspicion, the proctor would then sporadically ask the exam taker to show the room on the camera. The exam begins after the proctor is satisfied.

However, there is a reason why cheating has suddenly increased among GRE test takers. A lot of it is due to the change in the exam pattern.  In the earlier version of the GRE, a candidate could not move to the next question without answering the first. But in the updated system, a candidate can move up and down the 20 questions in each section. This has helped fraudsters exploit the loophole and resort to unfair practices.

According to people who witnessed cheating first-hand, a person would enter the room from an angle he/ she is not visible to the online proctor, take pictures of all questions in the particular section — verbal reasoning or quantitative reasoning — as the exam taker scrolls up and down through it. The person then leaves the room to solve these questions with the help of collaborators outside. He would enter the room with a piece of paper with all answers. A third-year biomedical engineering student enrolled at a premier national institute, who spoke to The Indian Express on condition of anonymity, said most of those who take tests on behalf of others are in the third and fourth year. Often, they are approached by teachers from other institutes to help candidates for money. A 4-5 student group gets paid in the range Rs 30,000-Rs 40,000.

We do it for the money and to learn more about the exam pattern. It helps us prepare better because we also want to take the exam in the future. And it is easy money for us. Some students from management colleges who are in the first year…they are also in touch with their teachers from these institutes…so they also help, said another student who had ‘collaborated’.

Over a month ago, some candidates and the Manya coaching center informed ETS about the scam. After an initial complaint to ETS Support, Manya executives informed ETS’s India partner, Learning Links Foundation (LLF), of the details of the scam in a phone call on December 9. The LLF promised to escalate the issue at the ETS headquarters. On December 15, LLF reported that the head of the ETS Office of Testing Integrity would investigate the matter further.

On December 18, Manya Vice President Vandana Marda wrote again to LLF as well as to senior ETS officials, including John Kochanski, senior director of corporate strategy and business development at the company’s headquarters in New Jersey. She suggested that ETS suspend home testing, noting that the scam endangered the credibility of the GRE.

“Waiting anxiously to hear from ETS on resolving this. Perhaps ETS should close down GRE home testing immediately till such time you have found a foolproof method to conduct the test,” read the email, seen by The Hindu. “Please keep us updated on the steps ETS is planning to take. Perhaps ETS should involve PR agencies to spread awareness about the fraudulent activities happening and should notify students to not become victims,” the email said. In a later email to ETS, Manya also threatened to report the scam to the police as a case of cybercrime, but has not yet done so, saying that would be the “last resort”. As a final warning, hence, Manya Education has now pointed the scam out to the government.

Responding to queries, an ETS spokesperson’s statement did not hint at much changes or steps that will be taken from their end to address the fraud. As reported by NDTV, the spokesperson said “The ETS Office of Testing Integrity is constantly addressing attempts by some to gain an unfair advantage on our assessments. ETS characterizes a variety of improper testing behaviors (e.g., cheating, misuse of test content) as fraudulent, which we take very seriously and work tirelessly to prevent and investigate as and when they occur. Furthermore, ETS has been successful in invalidating the scores of those who attempt these behaviors and is therefore confident in score validity worldwide.

The spokesperson further added that the company will investigate complaints and ban students connected to scamsters, but will also continue to conduct at-home testing even after COVID-19 is no longer a threat as creating continuity with the on-screen experience is imperative to maintaining students’ testing experiences, and therefore they have no plans to update the test format.

However, students should be aware of the perils of resorting to unfair means for short-run success. New revelations on ‘GRE at Home’ indicate that the elaborate well-oiled scam machinery is not just running in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana but may have spread to other States, though in lower numbers, as coaching institutes, through which operations are channelized, are well-networked across the country. Students and their parents desperate to secure a sound future abroad, are not hesitant about paying large sums of money to these fraudsters. But no matter how lucrative the deal, students should not risk their future by falling into such traps. They may be jailed or deported if their scores are found to be acquired using dubious means, even if it is after completion of their degree or after they are already working. Is such a repercussion jeopardizing their entire career worth the risk? Students must ask this to themselves.

 

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