FORT EUSTIS, Va. – For eight years, the Army has known that its largest online testing program – which verifies that soldiers have learned certain military skills and helps them amass promotion points – has been the subject of widespread cheating.
In 1999, testing officials first noticed that soldiers were turning in many tests over a short period, something that would have been almost impossible without having obtained the answers ahead of time. A survey by the testing office showed that 5 percent of the exams were probably the subject of cheating. At the time, soldiers were filing roughly 200,000 exams per year.
But it wasn’t until June of this year, when an Army computer contractor complained about a website providing free copies of completed exams, that the Army acknowledged that it had a problem.
A five-month Globe investigation has since found that by then, hundreds of thousands of packages of completed exams had been downloaded by soldiers over many years.
But the Army never prosecuted anyone for cheating – which is a violation of three sections of the military code of justice.
In addition, the Globe found, the Army had been warned by a panel of experts it convened in 2001 that it needed to improve test security. But it did not act on the panel’s recommendation that the most important tests be given in a proctored classroom. Nor did it take even more modest steps, such as changing the questions at regular intervals to deter those who obtain the answers in advance.
Instead, as the Army put more of its correspondence courses online, the number of websites offering the answers to nearly 1,200 specialty exams grew continually, amid clear evidence that the people providing the answers were themselves Army personnel.
At the same time, the promotion points obtained through passing the online exams became a greater part of determining who gets made a sergeant, the rank often called the backbone of the Army.
This year, for example, soldiers who pass the exams can get more than half the points needed for promotion to infantry sergeant and more than a third of the points toward becoming a staff sergeant in a Patriot missile unit.
“As long as the Army, which has been well aware of this rampant problem for years, continues for one more day to use these exam results to award more money to soldiers [through promotions] the Army is promoting fraud,” said Lisa Conklin, a former enlisted soldier in Germany. She was one of dozens of soldiers and former soldiers who contacted the Globe expressing concern about cheating after stories appeared last summer.
Conklin said that cheating was “almost universal” in her unit, and that she was told it was none of her business when she tried to report it.
“The data to catch the cheaters is right there,” she said in an e-mailed response from Germany. “The Army has this data in their hands.”
During the eight years of Army inaction, the cheating problem grew steadily. The Globe investigation found that the cheating epidemic has involved tens of thousands of soldiers. Computer records from one site, called ShamSchool, created by the soldier who was the subject of news reports in July, show more than 200,000 downloads of packages containing the answers to multiple exams in just the 11 months from September 2006 to this past August. They included:
42,839 downloads of a package of engineering tests, covering subjects including explosives and demolitions, detecting mines, building trenches, and other forms of combat engineering;
19,570 downloads of a package of what the Army calls “interschool” exams, covering attack helicopter formations, chemical detection and contamination, and infantry field hygiene;
18,891 downloads of air defense artillery examinations; and
13,282 downloads of the course package for the Quartermaster Corps.
In August, commanders at the Army’s 101st Airborne Division in Kentucky ordered the soldier operating ShamSchool to take down the test materials. He did, but made the same information available on another site. Then, the day after he was allowed to leave the Army on a general discharge in October, he reposted the pirated exams on ShamSchool, which remains active.
But there are many other avenues for obtaining test results, including links on Yahoo and Google message boards, among other heavily trafficked websites. In August, a package of more than 830 Army examinations was offered for $24.99 on eBay.
In October a new service popped up: For a relatively modest fee, someone will take the exams for any soldier who agrees to pay.
The Army office that oversees the correspondence courses and testing program is located in a former World War II-era helicopter hangar in a distant corner of Fort Eustis, near Norfolk, Va. The neglected headquarters reflect what some staff members say is a larger lack of commitment by the Army, especially during the Iraq war. Since late 2004, testing officials say, the office staff has been cut from 20 to 13.
It was here, in 1999, that a civilian program analyst named Alvin Kahn first spotted an odd pattern in the test results: Some soldiers were submitting exams covering hundreds of hours of coursework in a relatively short period of time. Since the exams were supposed to be taken only after months of studying the course materials, the rapid filing of tests could mean only one thing: Soldiers had the answers and were quickly filling in exam after exam.
The Army Correspondence Course Program is designed to help soldiers learn new military skills and thereby obtain promotion points to become sergeants. Soldiers who choose to enroll in the courses – they are not required – can download their own copies of instruction materials. The soldiers are expected to spend an assigned number of hours learning the material, ranging from 1 to 64. The higher the number of course hours, the more promotion points are earned.
After completing the course, students take an online exam. If they fail, they may take it again, multiple times. But the tests require that soldiers always certify, by clicking an icon, that they “have not had access to copies of answer sheets or solutions from others.” The exams also warn students that cheating is a crime.
After Kahn’s discovery that students were turning in multiple tests over a short period, he conducted a “quality control check” in which he reviewed how many tests had been filed by each soldier over various time periods. He determined that about 5 percent of the tests were probably compromised.
Later, as a further check of the system, Kahn changed the order of questions on some tests over a weekend. Soldiers with pirated answer keys filled in tests in the wrong order and failed. The following Monday the office was flooded with complaints from soldiers convinced that their exams had been misgraded by the Army computer.
But the office lacked the authority to go after the cheaters. Under the military justice system, alleged criminal violations are investigated by the unit of the soldier who is implicated. So whenever testing officials heard about evidence of cheating, they referred it to the soldiers’ units, said Connie Wardell, the civilian official who has overseen the testing program since 2005.
The individual units, however, balked at taking action. Interviews with dozens of soldiers – some of whom did not want their full names disclosed for fear of retribution – suggest that cheating was tolerated by commanders, who didn’t want to engage in time-consuming and unpopular investigations.
In fact, the testing office acknowledged, there is no evidence that any violators were formally punished by the different units between 1999 and this fall.
“As much as we ask what happened [to the suspected soldier], we often never hear anything back,” said Marilyn Hicok, a testing official at Fort Eustis.
Last summer the Army computer contractor who complained about ShamSchool said he contacted the Army Criminal Investigation Division headquarters about taking action against cheaters. But CID headquarters declined to investigate.
The cheating allegations do “not meet the criminal threshold investigated by CID,” said spokesman Christopher Grey. Despite Grey’s assertion, no one in the Army disputes that cheating is a violation of military law, and the Air Force last year prosecuted three airmen, including a 19-year veteran, for running a 10-year cheating ring that supplied answers to promotion exams; two were sentenced to multiyear prison terms.
In the Army, however, cheaters haven’t been prosecuted. The testing office said it knows of no cases of soldiers receiving administrative punishments, either, until action was taken against the ShamSchool operator last summer. Then, this fall, the testing office persuaded a unit in Kuwait to invalidate the test results of four soldiers who used answer keys on their correspondence course exams.
In 2001 the training command brought together 33 officials from across the Army and the private sector to discuss ways to improve the security of its online learning system, which includes the Army Correspondence Course Program as well as other training programs. Among the participants were representatives from the Sergeants Major Academy, the Judge Advocate General’s School, the National Guard Bureau, the Army War College, and many outside test-security experts.
The group met at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and concluded that the growing reliance on online testing “increases the odds of various types of training compromise, such as obtaining questions beforehand or enlisting a proxy” to take the exams, according to the Army’s official report on the session.
The report added: “In the Army, the consequences of training compromise can be severe. For example, soldiers considered qualified to perform a task may not be, increasing the chances of ‘human error’ during an operation.”
The experts recommended that the Army explore a variety of tools to minimize cheating, including creating a large pool of questions for each test and then varying the ones given to each student; restricting the number of times a student could take any particular test; and using live proctors in testing centers to administer those exams considered “high stakes,” in which the consequences of not knowing the material would be severe.
One participant in the session, Ray Nicosia, director of security for Educational Testing Service, the world’s largest test delivery company, said in an interview that he has the same advice today for the Army that he offered in 2001: Any high-stakes test should be administered by a proctor at a testing center.
“That was my recommendation to this organization six years ago, and that’s my recommendation today,” said Nicosia, who oversees the computer-based graduate school entrance exams, as well as the SAT and Advanced Placement tests for high school students.
Officials at the Army testing office acknowledge that they did not implement most of the group’s recommendations, mainly because of a lack of resources. The only safeguards currently in place, according to testing officials, are a mechanism that changes the order of questions on the exams – but not the questions themselves, which is what the experts recommended; a mechanism that limits students’ ability to print the exams – though officials acknowledge that there is a way around it; and a reminder of the program’s honor code at the beginning and end of the exams.
More than a half-dozen specialists in online testing interviewed by the Globe said the Army’s program does not meet current security standards in the testing world.
“If the military’s serious about this, they can solve this,” said Randall T. Trask, an Army veteran and vice president of Pearson Vue, a consulting firm on computer-based learning.
But even Army officials acknowledge that they haven’t made test security a priority.
“We do the best we can when there are no additional resources,” said Colonel James C. Markley, the senior officer in charge of the testing center. “This [correspondence-course] program is one that hasn’t gotten a lot of additional help in recent years.”
Markley said he believes the responsibility for failing to take action against cheating lies with the individual units, even though he understands why it might not be a priority for commanders.
“The beauty of the military is every commander has to make decisions about what to prosecute and how,” Markley said. “Every commander out there is deciding, ‘Is this the highest priority for my attention?’ ”
Even now, he said, he has not been asked by his superiors to take action to safeguard the tests.
“Nobody has come to me and said, ‘Solve this problem,’ ” he said.
General William Wallace, the four-star general in charge of all Army training, declined through a spokesman to answer any questions about cheating.
Evidence of the extent of cheating has been viewable for eight years online, making it an “open secret” in the view of dozens of soldiers interviewed.
As early as 1999, cheating on Army Correspondence Course Program tests was discussed on at least three Google message boards, the Globe investigation found.
On the message boards, soldiers exchanged information about tests, discussed ways to beat the system, and, in some cases, were rebuked by other soldiers.
“The answers are in the textbooks,” wrote one soldier in 2000, scolding an Army medic who had asked for copies of the test answers. “Try learning the material – your troops may someday have their welfare depend on your being able to do your job. If you have to cheat, then you should not ever get promoted. Let somebody who can actually do the job get the stripes.”
Since at least 2001, there also have been message boards for sharing Army exam answers on Yahoo. Currently, there are more than a half-dozen, with titles like Army Correspondence Course Knowledge, Army Correspondence, and Promotion Points. One message board has 900 registered members, posting and downloading completed exams.
A website dedicated solely to selling Army test answers, Armyfocus.com, came online in 2005 and is currently run by an operator based at Fort Monmouth, N.J.
In 2006, a disgruntled soldier named Adam Chrysler started ShamSchool, which offered hundreds of copies of completed exams for free – under the motto “soldiers helping soldiers.”
Chrysler said in an interview that he wanted to make it easier for his comrades to get promoted more quickly.
ShamSchool was so popular in the ranks that within six months it had over 2 million hits – with thousands of new visitors coming every week.
In June, ShamSchool caught the attention of an Army computer contractor, who demanded that Chrysler’s division, the 101st Airborne, conduct an investigation.
In July, after a Globe story revealed the existence of ShamSchool, Chrysler’s commander ordered him to remove the materials. He did, but transferred all the copies of the tests to another site. Then, after being allowed to leave the Army in October under a general discharge, he put the exams back on ShamSchool.
The division’s investigation, conducted by Captain Carlos G. Garth, was completed at the end of July. It had sweeping findings, and called for an Armywide probe, but no such probe has been launched.
The report concluded that ShamSchool had “facilitated thousands of downloads of actual Army Correspondence Course Program exams complete with answers, which were subsequently used to cheat on [correspondence-course] exams.”
In one week in July 2007, for example, 20,100 “unique visitors” logged into ShamSchool, accessing 148,066 page views. At that point a total of 425,847 unique visitors had logged on, accessing 2,847,496 page views, Garth reported. More people visited ShamSchool than have been enrolled in the correspondence-course program this year – 313,127 – attesting to the extent to which cheating has become embedded in the testing system.
Garth himself downloaded a copy of the answers to a test of how to maintain the radar system on a Patriot missile, and took the exam. He reported that he had not studied and had “no retainable knowledge of the subject matter.”
Minutes later, he received an e-mail from the testing center at Fort Eustis informing him he had scored a “superior” 96 percent, earning 24 credit hours, the equivalent of 4.8 promotion points for a soldier aspiring to be a sergeant.
He also found that having the test answers available raised national-security concerns. It “may potentially expose tactical and technical vulnerabilities” to those “intent on disrupting US interests,” he concluded.
Garth sought help in his investigation from the local military police and CID, but both refused, claiming that cheating was beyond their purview. In the 18 days he was given to complete his probe, Garth said, he was not able to identify the cheaters.
“This investigation was not able to secure the identities of other military personnel participating in the content sharing at www.ShamSchool.com,” he wrote. “Moreover, other agencies either declined or were unable to provide assistance in support of a more detailed investigation.”
But the Globe, using relatively simple computer tracking skills, was able to locate the identities of dozens of soldiers who frequent ShamSchool and other websites.
For example, the “document properties” of exam copies found on ShamSchool identify the soldiers who last saved them on their computer.
Among them were soldiers at Fort Bragg, in North Carolina; the 18th Medical Command in Seoul, South Korea; the National Guard Bureau outside of Washington; the US Army Recruiting Command in St. Louis; Army headquarters in the Pentagon; Fort Benning, Ga.; and Fort Wainwright, Alaska.
On the Yahoo message boards many users have provided their e-mail addresses and the bases where they are stationed, including one woman who identified herself as the spouse of a soldier who was completing the tests on his behalf.
The Globe was also able to identify at least half a dozen of the most active website “moderators” who guide soldiers to the cheating materials. They include at least four active-duty sergeants based around the world, an Army contractor, and a retired soldier.
In addition, it is clear that some soldiers have used government computers to cheat, which is a separate crime under the Uniformed Code of Military Justice, and makes the downloads of pirated exams even more easily traceable by investigators.
But there is still no official Armywide investigation, according to the training command.
Garth recommended that the training command undertake “further investigation and action regarding the extent of cheating.” But Markley, who oversees the testing program, said he has never been given a copy of Garth’s report.
“I’m not aware of it, no,” Markley said.
The only one of Garth’s recommendations that has been implemented is the blocking of ShamSchool from military computers at various bases. But anyone wanting to cheat can consult the new site on Freewebs.com, which will take the exams for soldiers for a fee.
“This site is made for soldiers that do not have enough time on their own and are held back from rank because of promotion points,” the website announces on its homepage. “We strive to offer the best, fastest, and 100% completely safe way to max those [correspondence-course] points.”
The site charges 50 cents per promotion point – $100 for the maximum 200 points – and claims a soldier can complete the maximum number of ACCP courses in about two weeks.
“With cheap prices and fast service, you can be wearing that E-5 [sergeant] rank before you know it,” the site advertises.
The Army sergeant is the first leader that an Army private encounters in boot camp. Sergeants train soldiers to operate weapons, build fortifications, and go into battle. Sergeants also handle desk jobs, from dispensing Army paychecks to keeping the troops armed, fed, and clothed.
The Army maintains an elaborate process for selecting its sergeants, what it calls a “values-based, merit promotion” system.
Soldiers can gain promotion points for competence, military bearing, leadership, training, and responsibility and accountability, based on the assessments of the soldiers’ commanders and a separate promotion board. Candidates also can get points for weapons proficiency, awards and decorations, and civilian education.
But soldiers can also gain up to 200 points from the correspondence courses. And lately, those 200 points, obtained through online exams, can count for more than half the points needed to become a sergeant.
Each month, the Army Human Resources Command forecasts the number of vacancies and adjusts the number of points required for promotion.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – with a near-constant demand for sergeants – have driven down the point totals necessary for promotion in certain specialties.
For example, only 386 points were required for a specialist to be promoted to an infantry sergeant in October, down from 424 in September, records show. The numbers of points to qualify for the position of staff sergeant in a Patriot missile unit dropped from 662 in September to 502 in October, according to Army data.
In addition, the required points for sergeants in the signal corps, tank units, and intelligence branch have all been lowered dramatically because of personnel shortages.
Soldiers have been quick to note that the points gained from online tests take on greater importance as the total points needed for promotion decline.
The online courses are “even more significant if the required points drop to a lesser number,” said John Robinson, an Army chief warrant officer who completed a dissertation on the correspondence-course program in 2003.
Cheating, Robinson said, also becomes more tempting. “Enlisted folks who cheat in this manner are committing a greater crime, by being promoted under false pretenses and thereby exposing our Army to . . . young noncommissioned officers and leaders with suspect moral values,” he said in an interview.
But cheating has become institutionalized in many units, according to interviews with Army officials, enlisted soldiers, and civilian experts.
Sergeant Daniel Meridieth said in an e-mail that his superior officer directed him to ShamSchool. “I got the Web address from my platoon sergeant, who suggested it as a ‘study guide.’ And my first sergeant has said many times that ‘If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t trying hard enough,’ ” a catchphrase that also appears frequently on the message boards of the cheating websites.
Another sergeant, James Vesta, called the cheating on correspondence courses “pandemic.”
“I don’t know anyone who hasn’t cheated on the Army correspondence course system, and I know a lot of people,” he said.
But not all soldiers go along with it. The websites are rife with discussion forums in which soldiers bitterly argue about cheating.
Still, the promotion points – and the roughly $150 per month salary increase for active-duty soldiers seeking to become sergeants – are attractive, and many can’t resist the lure of quick advancement.
One soldier who declined to be identified said he “boycotted” the online courses “in disgust with the way that the dishonest soldiers were manipulating them.” But, he said, “Finally, I gave in to the fact that . . . it would be extremely difficult to be promoted otherwise.”
Many people in the military world – from retirees to contractors to active-duty officers – express alarm about the cheating.
“We have a warrior ethos of morals and ethics, and these people are not following our Army values,” said Sergeant Major Richard Rosen, a senior instructor at the Sergeants Major Academy at Fort Bliss, Texas. “They should be punished.”
But most acknowledge that the Army’s complicated command structure means little will change without pressure from the top brass. And the training command is already dealing with an influx of new soldiers, increasing numbers of whom have not met the standards the Army has long sought to maintain for physical fitness, educational attainment, and lack of criminal records.
With the Army accepting less-qualified recruits, some officers say, the top brass is unlikely to start trying to root out what most believe is a massive number of cheaters. Meanwhile, the pace of promotions has quickened. Now it can take as little as two years from the time soldiers enter as privates until they become a sergeant, Rosen said. By contrast, it took him nearly five years to become a sergeant after he entered in 1979.
With the system straining, even Markley, who oversees the testing office, doubts that there will be much money forthcoming to deal with the cheating problem. Still, the civilians in the office, led by Wardell, hope to make improvements. She said the office recently hired consultants to begin rewriting test questions. They’ve also applied for funds to “help identify potential cheaters” and the people supplying them with completed tests.
Markley remains skeptical, warning that funds in wartime tend to go to “people pulling triggers,” not people involved in training. But, he said, “I haven’t anguished over any of this.”
At bottom, he said, the cheaters will have to answer to their own consciences: “My personal perspective is this is about honor and integrity – the ability to say ‘This is my work.’ As long as there’s a way to cheat, people will cheat. All we can do is make it harder for them to cheat. We can’t stop them from cheating.”
© Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company.
By Bryan Bender and Kevin Baron
Globe Correspondent / December 16, 2007