Cheating scandal prompts supervisors to computerize hiring exams

Following Fire Department hiring scandal, L.A. County to move to standardized, digital testing system

In the wake of an audit of Los Angeles County Fire Department hiring practices that uncovered widespread cheating on exams, county supervisors voted Tuesday to put in place standardized, digital testing procedures for hiring across all departments.

The move will make the process more secure and make it harder to  cheat, officials said.

The audit, which was launched as the result of a Times investigation, found that fire personnel, including captains and a battalion chief had shared exam questions that were supposed to have been kept confidential. Auditors found that exams used for hiring, promotions, and to assess skills such as emergency medical treatment had been compromised.

Auditors also found other issues in the process, including an instance in which a box of hiring exam materials that was supposed to be under lock and key was left in an unsecured box on someone's desk.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who proposed the new, standardized system, said that some county departments were already using computer-based assessment systems.

"They are cost-effective and help the departments narrow down large applicant pools to find the most qualified candidates using less time and fewer resources," he wrote. "They are also an effective way to make the exam materials secure, preventing materials from being photocopied, shared or otherwise compromised."

Lorenza Munoz, a spokeswoman for Ridley-Thomas, said the new countywide system -- which is already used by the county human resources department -- will randomly select questions for each applicant from thousands of potential questions that will be stored on a secure server. Copy, paste, print and email functions will be disabled on the testing computers.

"It’s not about physical security of a paper-based program," she said. "It is about using technology that is designed to prevent cheating through layers of protection."

The supervisors -- except for Don Knabe, who was absent -- unanimously passed the proposal without discussion Tuesday. The board has questioned fire officials behind close doors, but has not so far called on the fire chief or others to answer questions publicly about the audit findings.

In an email to The Times following the release of the audit report, Chief Daryl Osby wrote that the department "will be addressing each and every substantiated allegation" outlined in the report. He said he would be "resolute in taking the appropriate administrative action against" employees who violated department policies.

Follow Abby Sewell on Twitter at @sewella for more county news.

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