boston.com your connection to The Boston Globe

Documents say Army knew of exam cheating

Crackdown spawns imitators

WASHINGTON -- The Army was warned at least six years ago that its online testing program was vulnerable to cheating, and has known for nearly a year that soldiers are obtaining copies of exams and answers on the Internet to fraudulently obtain promotion points, according to military documents.

The documents show that beginning in September 2006, the Army's own computer technicians began monitoring soldiers' usage of shamschool.com, the unauthorized website that is at the center of an investigation into whether thousands of soldiers are cheating on the Army Correspondence Course Program, known as ACCP.

On July 25, the soldier who operates that site, Specialist Adam Chrysler, was ordered to remove the materials after superiors in the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky., were tipped off that they were downloaded by soldiers at Army bases from Germany to Alaska.

But less than a week after ordering Chrysler to remove the material from his website, copies of the tests and answer keys have appeared on at least three other websites. In direct protest of the order, another soldier set up a message forum on Google to post the data. The intent was clear: The soldier, Sergeant Micah Smith, who is based at Fort Benning, Ga., called the new site ShamSchoolx2.

The refusal by some soldiers to cease sharing the exams and answers presents a new challenge to Army officials seeking to maintain the integrity of the service's promotion system. But official documents show that the Army shouldn't be surprised.

Authorities warned the Army on numerous occasions that portions of its online learning system are vulnerable to cheating -- in direct violation of regulations and possible military law, according to official military documents and reports.

The correspondence courses are designed to help soldiers expand their military knowledge in a host of areas, such as battlefield tactics and weaponry. They are also used by noncommissioned officers, the sergeants considered the backbone of the enlisted ranks, to gain points needed for promotion; up to 20 percent of the points they need to earn higher rank come from ACCP courses. In some cases, the coursework is also accepted as college credit.

There were warnings that the system could be compromised dating back to when the Army first began widespread use of online courses in the late 1990s.

Specialists at a workshop to enhance the Army's use of online education programs, which the military convened in 2001 at Carnegie Mellon University, warned that "the increased use of computer technology for distributed learning systems . . . increases the odds of various forms of training compromise, such as obtaining questions beforehand or enlisting a proxy for test taking," according to an official synopsis by the Army Research Institute.

Then in 2005, another group of academics and private "distributed learning" specialists the Army asked for advice laid out a series of recommendations it said would help safeguard the integrity of the Army's online education system, including redesigning some tests and monitoring soldiers while they complete their courses.

"The increased use of distributed learning, coupled with reports of increased frequency of cheating among high school students and college students, is reason for concern," the specialists warned. Yet, the Army did not use the additional security measures the specialists recommended.

The Army soon had its own evidence of widespread cheating.

From the time the ShamSchool site first went online last year, the Army was aware soldiers were using the answer keys posted there to complete their ACCP courses, according to the documents an Army insider provided to the Globe.

The data, compiled by the Army Training Support Center, show that ShamSchool was among the top websites, or "referral domains," soldiers viewed immediately before logging on to the Army's official website that administers the ACCP courses.

The Army investigation into allegations of widespread cheating, first reported by the Globe, began July 12 after officials at Fort Campbell were alerted that Chrysler was running the ShamSchool website there.

The military's investigating officer has conducted interviews, gathered statements from soldiers, and collected other evidence, according to Lieutenant Colonel Rumi Nielson-Green, a spokeswoman for the 101st Airborne Division.

"The review of the findings is ongoing, and no determination has been made," she said. "Then there's the legal review before any action . . . is taken."

But the announcement of the ongoing probe has not deterred a committed group of computer-savvy soldiers running more than a dozen test-and-answers websites from continuing a practice the Army says violates its regulations, and, possibly, military law. Because ShamSchool was the most prominent, it became the focus of the Army investigation, but officials predict the probe probably will expand to the other websites.

A few days after Smith created the Google message board, another website, politicalgroundzero.com, appeared and began posting the ACCP tests and answers. Yet another site, accpguide.com, popped up earlier this week.

The ShamSchool site, meanwhile, remains online and now provides a link to the other sites that post the test information. Its message boards have also become a sounding board for protests against the Army for ordering the ACCP test data removed.

"The answers have been handed down since the inception of ACCP," wrote a site moderator who uses the moniker "Ibizian" and says he is based in Germany.

"Be it old-school paper courses to the newer online versions. . . . This website has only placed those same documents into one place for all to see," he wrote.

Still, other current and former soldiers who contacted the Globe after news spread of the Army investigation said they have long struggled with the knowledge that many soldiers are getting the answers to the ACCP exams.

"This cheating to become NCO and then go higher as NCO is almost universal," said one Army sergeant who retired recently.

She said the lack of integrity in the ACCP and promotion system penalizes soldiers who do their own work.

"It's a severe equal-opportunity problem . . . when a soldier who refuses to cheat gets passed over and treated like garbage in favor of the people who do cheat."

Baron can be reached at kbaron@globe.com. Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES