Several cheating scandals involving professional testing have recently wreaked havoc on the licensing process in some health professions. And psychology has taken notice.

Last summer, the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy filed federal lawsuits against four physical therapy graduates charged with sharing more than 100 national licensing exam questions in an Internet chat room. The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy filed similar lawsuits last year against a number of foreign-trained pharmacists caught trading 200 exam questions on two overseas Web sites. The association even asked the FBI to investigate the incidents. And the summer before, the National Board of Podiatric Medical Examiners refused to validate the test scores of hundreds of students when it identified possible cheating scams.

The problem isn't necessarily new; years ago, a medical student took the MCAT--the Medical College Admissions Test--more than 10 times to memorize test questions and make money teaching exam preparation courses.

So what are the charges against cheaters? Anyone who takes information or memorizes questions from an exam, or "harvests items" as those in the business call it, and then shares that information in some way, has violated copyright laws. In fact, even when a test-taker has completed an exam--in the case of a psychologist or psychology student, it might be a professional credentialing test or the psychology licensing exam--and then discusses it casually with someone else, he or she could potentially break the law.

Psychology testing

But has the cheating wave hit psychology?

"There is no reason to think that it's affecting one discipline and not another," says Leon Gross, PhD, director of psychometrics and research and associate executive director for the National Board of Examiners in Optometry. In fact, the growth of both professional testing and computer applications has only increased opportunities for testing violations, say experts.

"We are aware that there is more and more item exposure than ever before," says Randy Reaves, JD, executive officer and general counsel for the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB), the organization that administers the psychology licensing exam.

The power of the Internet makes it easy for test-takers to share information quickly with countless other test-takers. In addition to videotaping exam rooms during tests, ASPPB also keeps tabs on Internet exam resources. "There is a chat room devoted to the exam, and we monitor that on a regular basis," says Reaves. Obviously, offers of test questions or answers raise a red flag, he notes.

"Because people are taking the test by computer, that increases the opportunity to memorize items," Reaves adds. Currently, ASPPB is investigating a number of very low scores--lower than even a "chance" score. If the scores are all in one jurisdiction, or there are other signs of possible cheating, the group will take action.

"If we find that someone is stealing our items, we will pursue them and use all of our legal recourses," Reaves says.

Cause and consequence

Motivations for cheating vary--and frankly some people don't even realize they're doing it. Test information harvesters, or people who use information provided by them, are often simply motivated by a strong desire to pass, says Gross. "Their motivation may be maximizing their chances of passing high-stakes tests," he explains. "There are multiple issues that converge here.

"There might be some tincture of teamwork between test-takers--'We help each other, we've been in the trenches,'" he says. And of course, note Gross and Reaves, there's always a profit motive. Like the man selling MCAT prep courses, some test-takers see dollar signs in sharing information.

But sharing test information is illegal--it violates federal copyright laws. And it's professionally unethical, says Reaves.

Moreover, he adds, "It causes a problem for the guilty and the innocent." For example, when a test has to be recalled because information has been stolen, even those who had nothing to do with the scandal don't get their test scored and have to be retested.

And the cost to the licensing boards is huge. "We had situations about 10 years ago where exams were stolen and we had to retire all the stolen items," says Reaves. "That cost us in excess of $100,000." Those costs are then passed on to the test-takers eventually when test administrators have to raise test prices.

"People who are taking items and sharing them are really doing a disservice to the innocent," he says.

Though the problem is a big one, Reaves emphasizes that he doesn't want to be an alarmist. "We're not looking for the innocent," he says. If a psychologist simply discusses an exam--licensing or professional credentialing--with someone, cheating probably isn't the intent. But, say the experts, psychologists should steer clear of chat rooms or Web sites that provide actual parts of exams.

And a message to those who do cheat: The price for being caught is high. Aside from facing federal charges, cheaters are barred from practicing their chosen profession in most cases. In addition, more cheaters are getting caught as lawsuits against them increase. Partly that's because, in health disciplines, copyright law does more than protect financial interests--it actually protects the public from unqualified professionals. That's certainly reason to crack down.