Millions of people have taken tests and exams online in the past few months. Many of them saw that little green light on the top of their laptops or webcams because those exams were proctored, observed live by a professional test expert who could provide assistance if needed and who also ensured that the test administration was fair and no one was cheating.
My name is Rick Hebson and I’m one of the people on the other side of that green light. I watch people take tests for a living.
Well, more accurately, I now watch the people who watch the test-takers. I’ve been promoted. But I’ve been doing that – watching tests or watching watchers – for eight years. I’ve personally proctored more than 10,000 tests and easily have supervised 100,000 more. I’m sure watching people take tests sounds like an odd job, but there are literally thousands of us who do this, all over the world.
Usually, when people find out what I do, the first thing they say is that they’re surprised that’s a job. Obviously, it is, and it’s an important one.
The testing and certification market – colleges, assessments tests such as the GRE and SAT and TOEFL, and professional certification tests for professions such as realtors, nurses and accountants – is a multi-billion dollar market. And those test makers can’t afford to have their tests compromised or the value of their degrees or licenses compromised by cheating. So, they invest in protecting their name, their intellectual property and, most importantly, protecting the students and test-takers who are hurt when a test is compromised by cheating.
There’s 30 years of academic research about cheating on tests, all of it is pretty clear that people will cheat when there’s something valuable on the line. And they will really cheat if they think no one is watching. But, honestly, I don’t need to read all those studies. I have literally seen it. In fact, I know students try to cheat even when they know someone is watching.
People are sometimes also surprised when I tell them the extremes people go to in order to cheat. Not only are there companies, big multi-million dollar companies, set up to help people cheat on exams and other work, but people will do nearly anything to try to get away with it.
In one test I proctored, for example, a student hovered a helicopter drone above his head during the test – out of view of the camera. He was recording his test so he could sell it to others. I’ve seen fake IDs, twins standing in for one another, fake computer screens and notes hidden anywhere and everywhere you can imagine.
But another thing I try to tell people about the job of being a test proctor is that it’s really not about catching cheats. No one in this business gets up and goes to work excited about the idea of catching people doing bad things. Just like, I assume, police don’t go to work every day hoping to catch a bank robber in the act or to get shot at. I’m sure they prefer that their shift go quietly and smoothly and that maybe they’ll get to help a few people. That’s how I feel about being a test proctor.
And sometimes, we do get to help people.
Once, I was proctoring an exam for a woman and, I’m not kidding, a swarm of bees got into the room. She was overwhelmed, as anyone would be. And while I was not able to swat them away for her, I was able to contact her professor and her school and tell them what happened so they could arrange a new test for her – presumably in a less apiary setting. I’m sure she got at least a B.
In fact, countless times proctors serve as impartial judges, not to catch students but to help them. I can’t tell you how many times a cat has jumped on a keyboard and prematurely submitted a test. Or how many times a student has had to leave a test because they’re sick. We are able to say to the school or their testing body, “yes, the cat really did eat their test.” Having that record, that neutral observer can be very important when the stakes are high.
Another, final thing I think people can miss is that proctors don’t set the test rules. We don’t get to decide what books or notes or materials a test-taker can use, or when they can take a break. Those rules are set by the teacher or the test provider. We just try to be sure everyone is following the same rules set by the test provider, so that it’s fair – exactly the same as if someone were taking that same test in person, in a classroom or in a test center.
Believe me, we know that tests can be annoying and stressful enough without added issues. That’s why mostly we just want to help you get where you want to go – into and out of your test as quickly and as easily as possible. We really don’t want to make that take any longer or be any more difficult. We’re people too and, even though we’re behind that little green light, what we do is just like any other service. We’re focused on doing our best to make sure things go well and the tests are fair for every test-taker.