What is the Single Best Way to Improve Assessment Security?

John KleemanPosted by John Kleeman

Three intersecting circles, one showing Confidentiality, one showing Availability and one showing IntegrityAssessment results matter. Society relies on certifications and qualifications granted to those who pass exams. Organizations take important decisions about people based on test scores. And individuals work hard to learn skills and knowledge they can demonstrate in tests and exams. But in order to be able to trust assessment results, the assessment process needs to be secure.

Security is usefully broken down into three aspects: confidentiality, integrity and availability.

  • Confidentiality for assessments includes that questions are kept secure and that results are available only to those who should see them.
  • Integrity for assessments includes that that the process is fair and robust, that identify of the test-taker is confirmed and that cheating does not take place.
  • Availability includes that assessments can be taken when needed and that results are stored safely for the long term.

A failure of security, particularly one of confidentiality or integrity reduces the usefulness and trustworthiness of test results. A confidentiality failure might mean that results are meaningless as some test-takers knew questions in advance. An integrity failure means that some results might not be genuine.

So how do you approach making an assessment program secure? The best way to think about this is in terms of risk. Risk assessment is at the heart of all successful security systems and central to the widely respected ISO 27001 and NIST 800-53 security standards. In order to focus resources to make an assessment program secure and to reduce cheating, you need to enumerate and quantify the risks and identify probability (how likely they are to happen) and impact (how serious it is if they do). You then allocate mitigation effort at the ones with higher probability and impact. This is shown illustratively in the diagram – the most important risks to deal with are those that have high probability and high impact.

Four quadrants showing high probability, high impact in red and Low probability, low impact in green. With yellow squares for high probability, low impact and low probability, high impact

One reason why risk assessment is sensible is that it focuses effort on issues that matter. For example, the respected Verizon data breach investigations report for 2017 reported that 81% of hacking-related breaches involved weak or stolen passwords. For most assessment programs, it will make sense to put in place measures like strong passwords and training on good password practice for assessment administrators and authors to help mitigate this risk.

There is no “one size fits all approach”. Some risks will differ between assessment programs. To give a simple example, some organizations are concerned  about people having reference materials or “cheat sheets” to look up answers in and this can be an important risk to mitigate against; whereas in other programs, exams are open book and this is not a concern. In some programs, identity fraud (where someone pretends to be someone else to take the exam for them) is a big concern; in others the nature of the proctoring or the community makes this much less likely.

If you’re interested in learning more about the risk approach to assessment security, I’m presenting a webinar “9 Risks to Test Security (and what to do about them)” on 28th November which:

  • Explains the risk approach to assessment security.
  • Details nine key risks to assessment security from authoring through delivery and into reporting.
  • Gives some real examples of the threats for each risk.
  • Suggests some mitigations and measures to consider to improve security.

You can see more details on the webinar and register here.

Assessment security matters because it impacts the quality and trustworthiness of assessment results. If you are not already doing it, starting a risk-based approach to analyzing risks to your security is the single best way to improve assessment security.

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