The Balancing Act in High-Stakes Exam Delivery: Exam Security and Candidate Experience

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What is high-stakes testing? Why are there rules and processes for administering high-stakes exams? What are the key considerations when administering these exams in test centres across multiple locations?

These are all excellent questions that need clear answers for credentialing organizations, regulators, proctors, and candidates. It is especially important that exam administration information and security protocols are readily available to all candidates taking any credentialing examination.

When we refer to a high-stakes exam, it means that the exam outcome will confirm that the established standard of competence for practice has been met. By passing their credentialing exam, candidates have demonstrated the knowledge, skills, and abilities required for practice in a determined field. At Yardstick Assessment Strategies (YAS), we specialize in delivering these types of exams for future nurses, psychotherapists, dietitians, certified financial planners, engineers, and many more professions.


Secure and standardized delivery across multiple locations

The vast majority of exams administered though YAS are delivered by computer, in geographically dispersed test centres, often hosting candidates in many locations for the same exam administration. We use strictly defined processes and procedures to ensure secure and standardized exam administration, and to protect exam integrity. Set either by the credentialing organization or YAS’s own policies (fully aligned with National College Testing Association standards), these processes confirm candidate identity, prevent cheating, and protect exam content.

Detailed policies and procedures for exam administration are essential to guarantee consistency and security. It’s also critical that everyone involved in the exam, from internal stakeholders such as testing organization personnel, proctors, and the credentialing organization, to the exam candidates themselves, receive documentation outlining these policies.

  • A candidate handbook will describe what is to be expected on exam day and key rules for the administration so that candidates can clearly understand and prepare to meet requirements for taking the exam. Details may include the type of exam, exam location, requirements for the confirmation of candidate identity, materials allowed during exam administration, appropriate behavior, information on procedures, and what to expect from proctors or test centre personnel.
  • Proctor guides inform proctors and other test centre personnel on the necessary processes and tasks for a consistent and secure test administration delivery. Adequate and regular proctor training and a strict adherence to exam administration rules ensures consistency of exam delivery across multiple locations and time zones, even in the event of unforeseen circumstances.


Proctor responsibilities and training

Proctors are responsible for running the exam delivery session. Proctoring tasks include (but are not limited to):

  • receiving and distributing exam material;
  • ensuring the security of the exam content;
  • verifying candidate identification;
  • providing instructions to the candidates prior to the exam regarding expectations and policies;
  • providing approved accommodation services to candidates;
  • launching the exam;
  • troubleshooting any possible incidents or technical issues;
  • monitoring all activities during the exam administration;
  • reporting any irregularities; and
  • collecting and removing any documentation (e.g., notes) as outlined by YAS.

Proctors ensure that all candidates are tested fairly, and that the exam environment is adequate.

Considering the important role of proctors, it is imperative that they are properly selected and trained for each exam they supervise. To guarantee a standardized exam experience, every proctor gets the same training manual and proctor guide specific to the examination being delivered, and is expected to follow the same best practices for exam administration.


Candidate security checks

As part of their responsibilities, proctors supervising a high-stakes exam will undertake a strict identification process and inspection for accessing the exam room, to confirm candidates’ identity and verify that no unauthorized material is brought in.

Common requirements related to the candidate admission to the exam room include:

  • permissible and non-permissible items for candidates (e.g., calculators, text books, phones, notes, smart watches, etc.);
  • direction to candidates regarding personal belongings storage during the exam;
  • clothing limitations (e.g., no sweaters with pockets, no caps, no hat except for religious reasons, no jewelry, etc.)

Although this is necessary to protect the integrity of the exam process and content, it’s also incredibly important that candidates are told the identification requirements, authorized material, and restrictions on clothing and personal items well ahead of time. This way, they can prepare in advance, pick appropriate clothing, and, if necessary, request special accommodations.

When it comes to religious headwear and other special accommodations, specific requirements for notification and approval vary by credentialing organizations. Some credentialing organizations will specify that religious headwear must be communicated and documented prior to the exam day, while other organizations will not specify that advance notification is required. Regardless, proctors are trained and expected to deliver fair and secure access to the exam room to all candidates. Consequently, clothing or headwear may be inspected (e.g., rolling sleeves, turning pockets, inspection of hood) following pre-established protocols (e.g., not touching the candidate). In such instance, YAS’s policy for the testing centres we partner with indicates that such inspection should be done in a considerate, respectful, and fair manner. Furthermore, they must explain the reason for the inspection, and provide privacy and other accommodations as applicable.


Quality assurance

At YAS, we build trusting relationships with our test centre network. We ensure proctors are trained and get the required documentation prior to each administration, and our own in-house exam administration team is available to answer questions before, as we as on exam delivery day. We check in with each testing centre after delivery to determine if there were issues and confirm all security protocols were followed correctly.

If there is ever a discrepancy between the official processes and procedures and the actual exam administration, whether noted by our own administration team or reported by a candidate, we investigate every incident to determine exactly what happened, who was involved or affected, and whether it affected the integrity of the exam. Only then do we determine next steps, which may include reviewing our training materials or assisting a testing centre with updating their own processes and training.


Final thoughts

There are many factors to consider and policies to adhere to when delivering a high-stakes credentialing examination and YAS, through its network of test centres, is committed to ensuring standardized, secure, and fair delivery of all examinations.