FBI visits Cambridge University to discuss beating language exam cheats

07 April 2008

An FBI specialist is to address European language experts on new forensic technology for detecting cheating in language exams.

The presentation, held at the international conference of the Association of Language Teachers in Europe (ALTE), will outline how, as language tests become increasingly important for employment, study and immigration, they also become the target of cheating.

Rachel Lunde Brooks from the FBI in Washington is an applied linguist who has studied forensic linguistic techniques. She will explain how, even if cheating is undetected in the exam room, responses can be analysed by computer using sophisticated authorship attribution formulae. This can indicate whether a candidate's answers have been the result of cheating.

Rachel said: "Although examinees' translations of test passages may have similar content, there is still a great amount of variation in how the information is expressed. We can use computer analysis to compare one candidate's exam answers with the typical behaviour of other candidates' responses. If a pair of answers shows tremendous similarity, it can indicate cheating. While examiners may have 'hunches' that a candidate's performance is not quite right, we now have techniques which can give a strong statistical indication of whether someone has cheated or not”.

The ALTE conference is being hosted by the University of Cambridge. Cambridge English is a department of the University of Cambridge, and more than two million people take its language exams every year.

Chief Executive Dr Michael Milanovic said people were increasingly expected to demonstrate English language ability to take advantage of work, immigration and international study opportunities: "We have always viewed strong systems for the prevention of cheating as a key part of ensuring the fairness and reliability of our tests. At Cambridge English we are already using many of the techniques advocated by the FBI as part of our own security systems. I am looking forwards to Ms Brooks' presentation as I am sure our organisations can learn a great deal from each other."