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Nuclear Missile Command Drops Grades From Tests To Discourage Cheating 122

Posted by Soulskill
from the D-for-darn-good dept.
An anonymous reader writes: Earlier this year, just over half of the military officers put in charge of U.S. nuclear launch facilities were implicated in an exam cheating scandal. The Air Force conducted regular exams to keep officers current on the protocols and skills required to operate some of the world's most dangerous weapons. But the way they graded the test caused problems. Anything below a 90% score was a fail, but the remaining 10% often dictated how a launch officer's career progressed. There might not be much functional difference between a 93% and a 95%, but the person scoring higher will get promoted disproportionately quicker. This inspired a ring of officers to cheat in order to meet the unrealistic expectations of the Air Force. Now, in an effort to clean up that Missile Wing, the Air Force is making the exams pass/fail. The officers still need to score 90% or higher (since it's important work with severe consequences for failure), but scores won't be recorded and used to compete for promotions anymore. The Air Force is also making an effort to replace or refurbish the aging equipment that runs these facilities.
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Nuclear Missile Command Drops Grades From Tests To Discourage Cheating

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  • You still need a 90% to pass. At least you no longer have folks clamoring for the top score.
    • by Agares (1890982)
      I think it will help the issue some, but like you said it may still end up being a problem.
    • by ERJ (600451) on Wednesday July 30, 2014 @09:46AM (#47565373)
      They had a story on the radio last night about this. The issue is that everyone (well, most everyone) was getting a passing grade. When they came in and gave an unexpected test the average score was 95%. The problem is that promotions were based on the grades. So, people were not cheating to pass but instead to be "perfect" in order to look better for promotion.
      • by misexistentialist (1537887) on Wednesday July 30, 2014 @10:07AM (#47565579)
        Obviously promotions should go to the candidate who has launched the most missiles.
        • Based on what I've heard about the ICBM people, it should probably go to the candidate who can quote the most Bible passages [youtube.com], preferably those of the "the end of world is nigh" kind.
      • by TWX (665546)
        If the average score was 95%, then wouldn't that mean that the general field of scores was falling somewhere in the 100%-90% range, possibly with disproportionately more above 95% to offset those falling below 90%?

        Frankly, the danger is that we can't really know what the actual scores, without the pervasive cheating, would have been. There might well be 30% that passed that would have failed without cheating.

        If over 50% of the participants were able to cheat, then it sounds like they need to work on
        • by geekoid (135745)

          In randomly given test to check exactly what you describe scores were into the 90%

          The issue is about 1 or 2 percent difference in the 90 percentile.
          While you test would work, it is much simpler to grab everyone you suspect of cheating, and give them a test under controlled conditions and see how they fair.

          • by Wootery (1087023)

            under controlled conditions

            So the original tests weren't under controlled conditions?

      • The problem is that promotions were based on the grades. So, people were not cheating to pass but instead to be "perfect" in order to look better for promotion.

        This is the key point that everyone seems to be missing in the discussions I've seen here and elsewhere on the 'net, so it bears emphasizing and repeating.

        It's interesting that they've shifted to using simulator performance (which is virtually impossible to cheat in) for promotion eligibility... because their jobs are basically so damn simp

        • by geekoid (135745)

          "because their jobs are basically so damn simple it's going to be very hard to realistically rate one crew as being notably better than another. "
          I was SAC, and that statement is laughable.

          • I was SAC, and that statement is laughable.

            I was USN SSBN missile systems and have talked with many SAC (Minuteman) launch crews over the years, and it's the dead simple truth. Your systems are much simpler than ours (even without figuring that we had sixteen tubes that we operated individually while you mostly just watched lights) and you didn't (couldn't) operate them or intervene in their operations to the level we did.

            The examples of the complexities that you didn't have to deal with are legion (off t

      • by k6mfw (1182893)
        I see some with military experience reply to this, "hard to realistically rate one crew as being notably better than another."

        Years ago talking with USAF officers and they said officer evaluation reports have these boxes for each particular line item from 1 to 10 (1 as lowest score, 10 highest), and a enough space to write one sentence. But all officers had all "10" boxes checked, if any other box even a 9 on any line were checked, then that officer will promptly lose his commission. (I never understood t
    • Well the issue of cheating wasn't really a full security risk, as most of the cheaters would have passed anyways. But with a 90% pass rate, the idea if you got a 90%-92% = D
      93%-95% = C
      96%-97% = B
      98%-100% = A

      I am sure most of you who have been threw academia, with percentages so close that any number of factors can fluctuate your score by a few percentage.
      Too tired from a night of studying. Too Hungry, too full, having to go pee, Feeling too anxious or too confidant....

      Now a lot of these people taking the t

    • by Salgat (1098063)
      It makes it much more difficult, since cheating to get a few points is a lot different than cheating 10-20 points to pass. The end result is that cheating will have much less impact on the results.
    • It's easy to cheat at Missile Command- use a touch screen.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    WOPR

  • ... or refurbish the aging equipment that runs these facilities.

    Which equipment? The testing equipment, the launchers, missiles, terminators?

    • In this case, probably the computer systems. They've been using the same stuff since the missile sites were first built, to the point where they're still using 5-inch floppies to transfer data.

      • by Isca (550291)
        Quite frankly this is what should give you nightmares.

        I can almost guarantee whatever replaces it will not be as secure.
        • by geekoid (135745)

          That begs the question. Why do you assume they are currently secure?

          That said, these system are typically engineered, that alone will make them have a high level of security.

          • by AHuxley (892839)
            They have a fence around the site and the hatch system is secure. The electronic code system would have only been been seen by a few people to give the right code to the right site at the right time (one time pad).
            The older staff would have worked out every control panel and lockout device due to boring mission hours and skills.
            So you need the code sent in, a few people to send the code, more than 1 person to turn the key/get launch site ready.
            The main issue is if the entire command falls under the infl
      • by smaddox (928261)

        If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Older computers have the distinct advantage of being far less susceptible to EMP.

    • ...the officers...

  • by PvtVoid (1252388) on Wednesday July 30, 2014 @09:52AM (#47565439)
    Q: What is the launch code for all U.S. Minuteman missiles?

    A. 00000000 [arstechnica.com]
    • Re:Sample Question (Score:5, Interesting)

      by geekoid (135745) <dadinportland @ y a hoo.com> on Wednesday July 30, 2014 @10:10AM (#47565591) Homepage Journal

      I'll let you in on a secret.
      Just having the code stopped the problem they created the code to fix. Since it fixed the problem, it makes sense for it to be an easy number. I suspect the rpesident will be under a little stress if he had to actually use it, so you want to minimize mistakes.

      The security guy makes a classic security review mistake. Ignoring why and the practicality and the impact.

      So that actual number is irrelevant, and no, you don't punch the code and then missiles launch.

    • Hey, that's the combination I had on my brand-new luggage before I changed it to 12345!
    • You use the present tense to describe a situation that ended 37 years ago? That's pretty odd.

  • "There might not be much functional difference between a 93% and a 95%, but the person scoring higher will get promoted disproportionately quicker."

    This weasel language implies that it's not fair that someone that scores higher on the test gets promoted faster, and also implies that any promotion due to higher grades is "disproportionate," which is media-speak for "unfair."

    "This inspired a ring of officers to cheat in order to meet the unrealistic expectations of the Air Force."

    Why is it unrealistic that th

    • by geekoid (135745)

      No. the difference between 93 and 95 percent is irrelevant. This isn't someone getting 80% and someone else getting 95%.

      You're looking hard for an issue that isn't hear. I was in SAC. You, OTOH, should probably read my sig.

    • by dbrueck (1872018)

      Maybe, but I read it it slightly differently. 'Disproportionate' means 'too large or too small in comparison with something else'.

      So I took it to mean that someone who got two percentage points higher on their test ended up being promoted at a much higher rate than would generally be expected for that small of a difference in scores.

      As a made up example, if you scored two percentage points higher on your final than me, and all else equal, as a result over the course of your career that single test caused yo

    • by quantaman (517394) on Wednesday July 30, 2014 @10:39AM (#47565871)

      I disagree. I'd be surprised if the standard deviation for an individual test taker was less than 2%. If you take the office who scored 95% and the officer who scored 93%, then made them take another test on the same subject, I wouldn't be remotely surprised if the scores were reversed. This is a good rational to make the test pass/fail and drop the grades.

  • by bickerdyke (670000) on Wednesday July 30, 2014 @10:04AM (#47565547)

    Unrealistic expectations?

    Not for the best of the Best of the BEST, SIR!

  • by Joe_Dragon (2206452) on Wednesday July 30, 2014 @10:14AM (#47565623)

    take the men out of the loop

  • If the story 60 Minutes did on this is anywhere accurate it doesn't surprise me the cheating is a huge problem. The state of repair of the facilities and systems was so bad, it showed to me that no one in the Command is paying attention. I don't want to say no one cares, but it looks pretty bad. The state of repair of their systems is probably the same as their staff.
  • by Greyfox (87712)
    I'm glad the men in charge of ending the world have such unflinching ethical standards.
  • To remember the launch code [dailymail.co.uk]? :)

  • Are you kidding me? 90% competency in protocol is unrealistic?
    When it comes to a nation's nuclear weapons, I don't want a B or less, I want the person with the A managing the switch.

    Has this country become so lazy and apologetic towards 'bad grades hurt feelings' pansies that they will pass everyone?
    If I recall from ye olde school days:
    A = 94-100%
    B = 84-93%
    C = 74-83%
    D = 64-73%
    F = 64%

    C shouldn't even be a passing grade. It was never acceptable in my house. C's wait tables. D's are garbage collectors, F's li

    • by McKing (1017)

      That's the whole point. Every last one of these officers got above 90%, but the ones who (for example) got a 95% were promoted faster than the ones who got 93%. Answering one question wrong became at least a roadblock if not a career-killer, so they cheated to get 100%.

      It like those "customer satisfaction surveys" that a lot of industries rely on. If you answer them correctly and accurately ("well they did the job adequately, no complaints so I give them 4 stars"), you are actually hurting the business or

      • I get that, I'm not commenting on that fact. I'm commenting on the 90% or better is an unrealistic expectation in the summary.

        Now, as to 95 vs 93% affecting promotion speed? I don't see the problem there either. The person who studied harder (or better) than his rival should definitely have their higher score have more weight when considered for promotion.

        Did both pass the test? Yes, but candidate x passed better than y. If all other things are equal, then X should get the promotion.

        • by tlhIngan (30335)

          I get that, I'm not commenting on that fact. I'm commenting on the 90% or better is an unrealistic expectation in the summary.

          Now, as to 95 vs 93% affecting promotion speed? I don't see the problem there either. The person who studied harder (or better) than his rival should definitely have their higher score have more weight when considered for promotion.

          Did both pass the test? Yes, but candidate x passed better than y. If all other things are equal, then X should get the promotion.

          Except well, a 2% differ

          • I disagree entirely. One question when dealing with the operations of a nuclear missile site is not statistical error if that question involves verification procedure for a launch order, or anything else that involves a life or megadeath decision.

            • by hendrips (2722525)

              If what you say really is true, then the passing score should be 100% already.

            • by geekoid (135745)

              You're wrong.
              It's a specific set of procedures. You know them and can preform them or you can not.
              They aren't doing calculations.
                They aren't composing a sonnet, they aren't reciting history dates.

              But I've been there, and you just an ass on /.

              • Then do enlighten us, what sort of things are on such a test where the difference between 93 and 95% is immaterial? I'd be very curious to know.

    • by Kelbear (870538) on Wednesday July 30, 2014 @10:54AM (#47566009)

      Who are you talking to?

      The summary states that 90% will continue to remain the minimum requirement for success, as it was before.

        The "unrealistic expectation" was making promotion decisions based solely on the difference between 93% vs 95% on the test score. A 90% was the equivalent of a "D". The problem was that to be promoted, the expectation was to hit that 2% difference (which may very well be a single question on the test) and that would mean the difference between being promoted or not being promoted (which means a host of different responsibilities). It's nice to have a firm metric you can point to in order to justify the decision that was made.

      The problem is that the single question out of many, was the deciding factor between 2 candidates to take on a multitude of increased responsibilities, their qualification for which may not be accurately gauged by a single question out of many on a graded exam. For comparison, let's say you have 2 programmers take a test, programmer A gets 93%, and programmer B gets 95%. They both clearly have a very strong grasp of the requisite knowledge, which would you promote? The 95%? Well what if programmer B has excellent book-retention, but is lazy and disorganized in his personal and professional life? Maybe he has poor leadership skills over the people that he/she oversees? The idea of promotion based on a tiny difference in already-strong test scores starts to fall apart.

      • Your last paragraph raises valid points, however, it's based on insufficient information of the promotion process on both our parts.
        Provided everything else is equal in qualifications for promotion, then yes, 95 is better than 93 when selecting for a limited supply of promotion.

        However, this does not exist in a vacuum, and in your example, the lazy disorganized book retention specialist would be passed over for their disorganization if it hindered there performance in other areas.

        Additionally, not toward yo

        • by geekoid (135745)

          Do you know why they want to get promoted in missile command? to get out of missile command.
          Look, I was in Missile Command(F.E. Warren*). You're whole view on this is wrong. Your view is based on a school math like grading system. That in no way applies here.

          *Fuck Everybody Warren.

          • So, is missile command a dumping ground, or a proving ground where one has to show they've taken enough shit and learned to kiss the right asses and the test is an arbitrary hurdle?

            If it's just an arbitrary hurdle, fine, however, I would still believe that when handing out limited promotions, as unscrupulous as the process is made out to be, it seams that having the better score makes it easier to justify on a form why x is promoted over y. I can easily believe that the equiv of HR dumping resumes that don'

            • by Talderas (1212466)

              You should read up a bit more on how promotions work in the officer ranks of the military. All ranks have a minimum and maximum amount of time that you can spend in them. If you aren't promoted by the time the maximum is up, you get retired. There's also the "zone" for promotions for being promoted to Major, Lt Colonel, and Colonel. The zone to be promoted to Major is spending 3 years as a Captain and 10 years in the service. About 80% of Captains will be promoted to Major. You can be promoted a year earlie

    • Bulldust.

      For some of us, the "top of the desired desired field," is is making enough money to buy bait.

      • If that is all one aspires towards, so be it. Being able to enjoy one's free time is a wonderful thing.

        I, however, was instilled with an ethic to "always be better than the other guy in what you do".
        It's served my family well for many years, even in hard times.

        • I was instilled with the ethic that hunting squirrels, fishing, eating blackberries and taking kids swimming was the entire point of trading time for money.

          • It most certainly is the entire point, and I do love me some good blackberries and fishing.

            However, when times are tough, and one needs to stand out from the crowd to get paid and advance, the best prepared is oft likely to achieve their goals. Too many are content to live a subsidized lifestyle and too many more are content to subsidize instead of getting the subsidized off their posteriors.

            In my particular case, I'm approaching in 15+ years or so when my age begins to count against me. Therefore, I ensure

            • I was with you until this:

              ".. able to adapt quickly and better to newer technologies than the little (cheaper) snots coming up under me expecting praise and adulation at every turn so their 'feelings' don't get hurt."

              For the little snots coming up under me (I'm old and semi-retired), I listen and learn. They cut their teeth on my best work and they are running with it. While I bring experience to the table, the young ones have no fear and great, fresh, imaginations. I admire them so much.

              They are me.

  • More tests need to based on practical skills and non test cramming.

    Whats the point if people who are good at test cramming are rated better then the people who know what they doing and can be good at the practical skills parts.

    • You do realize that, in this case, the practical skills test would involve launching the missiles that bring about Armageddon.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    I was a Missile Launch Officer in an earlier life and it was without a doubt the worst job that I ever had. Boredom with massive micromanagement. Drive 2-3 hours to get to site, sit in an underground control center about the size of an RV for 24 hours, drive back 2-3 hours to base. Seven times a month, then a few days per month for training. Would never recommend that job to anyone that has an once of creativity.

    • by PvtVoid (1252388)

      I was a Missile Launch Officer in an earlier life and it was without a doubt the worst job that I ever had. Boredom with massive micromanagement. Drive 2-3 hours to get to site, sit in an underground control center about the size of an RV for 24 hours, drive back 2-3 hours to base. Seven times a month, then a few days per month for training. Would never recommend that job to anyone that has an once of creativity.

      I for one am very glad that you (and all of your colleagues) spent your time bored.

  • If you have people that are even remotely tempted to cheat that have their fingers on The Big Red Button, you have a serious threat to civilization.

    Having an incentive to cheat is a great way to elicit this potential. The proper national security response is not to remove the incentive to cheat but to increase the detection sensitivity and then hire the guys who cheated to compete with others who cheated to design test regimes that are more likely to elicit cheating while also being more sensitive to detec

    • by Baldrson (78598) *

      Oh I should add that once you are in this regime, the term "hire" may be somewhat different than it is in other circumstances. I mean a more straight-forward means of dealing with cheating is to punish cheating with a degree of severity that matches the potential harm inflicted by having cheaters with their fingers on The Big Red Button -- so the circumstances of the "employment" may involve such any aspects of such punishment as are practically applicable. Military justice isn't burdened with your usual

  • It reads as if they were delivering test results via missile launch. I sit here very disappointed.

  • If the tests were the sole basis for who gets promoted in a particular group of officers, I can see why the cheating occurred. Since promotion is tied to pay increases, and the job doesn't really change that much (other than you might be the "lead" launch officer or whatever...) people would be tempted to cheat to make sure they get the highest score. If I had a job that was that boring, I sure would want to get paid the most I possibly could for doing it.

    This is a common problem with high stakes testing. S

  • just over half of the Air Force military officers put in charge of U.S. Air Force nuclear launch facilities

    The Navy maintains a reasonably large fleet of FBMs that are not manned by the Air Force.

  • I remember the end of the Cold War. I thought we would eventually start dismantling most of the nuclear arsenal that's cost trillions of dollars to build and maintain. (I'm not even going to mention the cost of cleanup at this point.) So why do we still have the massive stockpiles? I understand that Russian nukes are a problem. I understand that Putin is not the nicest guy in the world, to say the least, and may not be that amenable to reducing his stockpile. But god knows the Russians will need to save m
    • by AHuxley (892839)
      Re"still maintain these ICBMs" is the key. Generations now expect a good paying job working on 1960's-90's tech for decades at a security level and gov pay grade.
      Overtime they have turned that some of that gov pay grade into contractor positions.
      The staff then have car, house, debt, hobbies - ie totally locked into the shareholder military industrial complex. Just as profiled for the position.
      Thats a lot of contractor boondoggle and maintenance rent seeking over decades too. Kind of hard for the polit
  • Do we really need a full arsenal of nuclear weapons that can destroy the entire earth fivefold? Rather than throwing more money at this stuff the entire sites and the nuclear rockets should be dismantled. That will save a lot of money, make the world a safer place, and lower the need of staff.

I cannot conceive that anybody will require multiplications at the rate of 40,000 or even 4,000 per hour ... -- F. H. Wales (1936)

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