Last week, the National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators (CCO), announced that via a press release that it had filed a legal action in Texas that targeted three individuals and one company that, they claim, helped students fraudulently certify as crane operators.
The CCO is the national organization that oversees the certification of crane operators. However, like many such organizations, the actual testing is done via local companies, who are paid by students for proctoring the exams.
According to the press release, the organization was alerted in early 2022 that the Texas company Coastal Bend Crane Certification was fraudulently certifying individuals through the CCO by falsifying both written and practical exam scoresheets.
This led to an investigation, which eventually found that Dan Chavez, a proctor at the company, was offering “test insurance” that guaranteed a passing score. That service cost candidates as much as $6,000 or more.
They go on to allege that, even after his CCO credentials had been revoked, Chavez continued to defraud CCO candidates by taking their money and not providing any services.
The news was also not good for candidates who used Coastal Bend Crane Certification. The CCO says it invalidated nearly 1,000 written and practical exams and required nearly 300 candidates to retake exams. However, only 14% did so, with most declining to retake it and many who did attempt it “failed their exams by a wide margin”.
According to the San Antonio Express-News, the alleged conspiracy began as early as August 2020 and involved both Chavez and two other proctors, who were brought in on the scheme. The article also says that he was only caught after Chavez bragged about how much money he was making from the scheme.
Chavez was terminated from the company in January 2022 and had his testing personnel role revoked in May 2022.
This isn’t the first time that something like this has happened. According to The Cheat Sheet, where I first heard about the story, in November 2022, arrest warrants were issued for eight individuals who were accused of paying an impersonator to take required online exams for certification in elevator repair.
Though, in that case, it appears the proctoring company was not involved, the individuals were only caught after the local union reported the scheme to authorities.
These cases are deeply troubling and are reminders that academic integrity isn’t just an issue for universities. Cheating is a big issue in the professional world as well and can sometimes come with serious real-world consequences.
Why These Cases Matter
When talking about academic integrity, it’s easy to put the focus on the classroom and look at what is going on in universities and schools. But that’s not the only environment where people are tested.
Certifications are part of many different careers and can include things such as taking tests, participating in continuing education and performing certain services or duties.
However, just as with work in the classroom, many see those certifications as an obstacle and value getting or maintaining their certification over performing the actual work to do so. In those cases, cheating becomes tempting.
Combine that with the fact that such certifications are often worth a great deal of money and that they are often proctored by private companies, it becomes an environment ripe for abuse.
Having unqualified crane operators or elevator repairmen puts others in danger. There are clear reasons why these certifications are necessary but, as these cases show, that doesn’t stop candidates from cheating them.
All of this is wholly predictable, and organizations like the CCO should be well aware of the potential for abuse. However, in both of these stories, it wasn’t the organization that caught the issue, it was a tip from a concerned professional in the field.
The fact that, in the CCO case, the cheating could go on for so long and so flagrantly should alarm the organization. Though it only represents a small percentage of the 1.5 million exams the organization has administered since 1995, it’s still a significant number, especially considering they’re all from the same region.
With both public trust and public safety on the line, these are not mistakes that the CCO can afford to make.
Trust But Verify
Right now, the entire system hinges on trust. Candidates, proctors and governing bodies are all trusted to act with integrity. While that is usually the case, as we’ve repeatedly seen, it’s not always true.
However, there are unique challenges here. Tests are often proctored by third parties with a financial interest in students passing, candidates are faced with immense financial pressure themselves and, in many cases, the grading can be subjective.
While the ideal would be for governing bodies to set up their certification process as a zero-trust system, that’s likely not practical. At some point, one does have to trust proctors and candidates.
But that doesn’t mean that organizations can’t work to verify and continuously test that the system is working. Sending in test candidates, checking results for anomalies, and retesting select candidates directly are all things that such organizations can do.
Finding out about this kind of cheating via a tip should be seen as a failure of internal processes, especially after it’s gone on for years and involved hundreds of candidates. While tips are important, they are ultimately the last line of defense in these cases and are a likely indication that there are many more such cases going on that we are unaware of.
If bodies like the CCO want the public to trust their certifications, then they have to be sure they can trust their proctors and their candidates. With so much at stake for all involved, that means building robust systems to detect problems quickly and then having equally robust systems to address those issues and correct them.
Often times, with academic integrity, it’s easy to be dismissive. If a student plagiarizes a basic English exam, while it’s harmful to their education and to the non-cheating students, no one is going to die.
That’s not wholly true here.
Unqualified crane operators are, undoubtedly, a significant danger to themselves and others. Crane accidents kill people, such as a crane collapse in Seattle that killed four and injured three back in April 2019. Though that accident happened while the crane was being dismantled and not operator error, it illustrates the danger here.
These are literal matters of life and death, and organizations like the CCO can’t afford to be relaxed when it comes to cheating in the certification process. While their actions in this case are positive, it highlights a need to tighten up their controls.
But while it’s easy to target the CCO, they’re far from the only organization in this situation. Countless other trade groups handle certifications for equally important and dangerous kinds of work, their procedures need to be equally robust.
In the end, the certification is only as good as the trust in it. If that trust erodes due to widespread cheating, even if it remains a legal requirement, it will not be taken seriously.
So, if these organizations can’t or won’t work to reduce cheating for the sake of public safety, then they need to do it for their own reputation. Otherwise, a certificate from them may become worth less than the paper it is printed on.