PSU test center goes high-tech, high-security

Swipe your ID card through the reader, take your ticket to your assigned cubicle, and don't forget to smile for the video cameras.

Pennsylvania State University's new testing center will be a lot like those on other campuses, with 160 private cubicles, each equipped with a computer. But the process of qualifying to enter it may be worthy of the CIA.

As well as giving time-crunched professors more flexibility in the type and timing of the exams they give, the center represents one of the most comprehensive efforts nationwide to discourage cheating.

The center will help "level the playing field for all students," says Will Kerr, who manages testing services for the university.

When a student swipes a campus ID, his or her picture will come up at a security station. The student will then scoot through a turnstile and check in with an attendant who will give him or her a printout and computer station assignment.

The printout will include the student's photo and information on whether he or she is permitted a textbook or scratch paper.

The computers will be locked out of the Internet; the only thing a student can scroll through is the test. Video cameras in the center — to open next spring — will feed images to the security station in the lobby, and proctors will walk around the room.

Stephen Satris, interim director of the Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University, says Penn State's universitywide and high-tech facility is uncommon.

"This is kind of a new thing, a growing thing," he says.

Rutgers professor Donald McCabe, who has studied cheating for decades, says he could not think of another school that went as far as Penn State in monitoring test-takers.

Cheating is not new in higher education. And at Penn State, it seems to be more of the "nickel-and-dime, garden-variety type," says John Harwood, the school's senior director for teaching and learning with technology.

But the recent volume of scandals — especially the schemes recently revealed among some graduate students at Duke and Ohio universities — may spur other universities to start "rethinking how they go about" curbing cheating, McCabe says.

"Student attitudes are changing. The availability of the Internet makes access to some information easier," he says. "It raises gray areas."