Cheating the Test

It has been said that cheating is wrong, dishonorable, and hurtful towards others as well as yourself. The measurements for final scores become skewed, making the results incorrect for everyone, including you. I learned not to cheat on 99.9% of tests when I was fourteen, after I was nearly expelled from middle school for cheating on a science exam. Since that grievous mistake, I have taken honor codes very seriously and resolved to never cheat on an academic exam, even when I feared being kicked out of my major or not making graduation.

There is one test, however, which I always cheat.


Whether out of reflex, internalized shame about my loss, or simply taking the same test for too long, I do not know.

My hearing loss is measured to be mild in my left ear, with my losses hovering around 25 dB. In my right ear, I fall into the category of moderate because my losses hit 41—the bare minimum needed to qualify. In my heart, I know my losses are likely greater, but they cannot be measured easily because hearing tests are heavily flawed and incredibly easy to cheat. Having taken them yearly for almost 20 years, I know the tricks needed to fool my audiologists. A rabid love for books that has shaped my vocabulary, giving me the ability to infer from fragments of muffled syllables. Training in music and dance allows me to manipulate the single pitch used to test different frequencies. I cannot say how common such skills are among hearing test takers, but they are certainly strong enough for me to fool any audiologist who administers the test.

The first time I noticed these flaws, I was about 15, and having my hearing tested after surgery 7’s failure. Each word was one I had heard a thousand times before: “Hot dog” “Playground” “Ice cream” “Popcorn.” It was not long before I could match “Ah ogg” “Pla gra” “Sss curm” and “Up curn” to their origins. Between the repetition of the words and constantly looking at books, I could visualize the word in my head just from hearing the syllables.

Away from the test, the same thing is true; “vtupip” translates to “stupid”; “aak oom” is “Lancome”; “up ake” means “cupcake”. I tried mentioning this to my audiologist, but she said it was part of the test—one of the things tested is how well one infers from fragments of words. In the setting of a testing room, this idea sounded perfectly fine. Outside, however, it led to excess exhaustion and trouble understanding math and science classes. Words like “phospholipid” and “parabola” were impossible to infer because they looked as strange as they sounded. With quick-moving classes and hard-to-understand words, I knew the hearing test was failing me more than I was failing it.

Though the list of words frustrated me, I found the different tones even more aggravating. Regardless of whether the pitch was high or low, I always knew how to translate them to piano notes. Occasionally, the test would use F#, but more often than not, it used B. I always came prepared for that note, trying to think of where I could find it on a keyboard, starting with middle C and working my way through different octaves. Each time the test began, I pictured the sheet music in my head. Staffs in 4/4 time, starting at mezzo-forte. Four measures of rest opened the test, then three quarter notes before a quarter rest. 1-2-3-rest. As the tone got quieter and drifted towards piano, I kept to my mentally written sheet music. Even at levels where I knew that, without strain, the sound would be gone, I insisted on raising my hand to tell my audiologist “I hear the sound.” I kept my counting and my sheet music the same: 1-2-3-rest. Whether or not there was background noise made little to no difference in my results. Singing in choirs prepared me for the cacophony of other voices. Developing my diaphragm to keep my sound loud, and therefore my pitch correct, kept me from being swayed by other voices. Those same skills helped me find a sound that, otherwise, would have been out of my reach on the test.

Already, the inevitable question is sitting in my mind: why cheat? Why try fooling the test if it could make your life easier to have a better fit measurement in your hearing aid? Though I mentioned my uncertain answer when first broaching this topic, this question is one that haunts me every time I leave the audiologist’s office. Some years, I know why I cheated; in the years I had surgery, I could not fathom a true measurement of my loss because any loss stood in my mind as surgical failure. Other times, like in my 2014 test, I have no idea why I cheated at all and wonder if there will ever be a day I can stop. It is not something of which I am proud, and I know it hurts my relationships with others when I cheat on this test. More words are lost, conversation becomes more difficult than it needs to be, and more energy than necessary is spent on strain. No matter what anyone says, cheating on any kind of test, even one for your health, hurts more than just you—even if you feel more pain than most.

My current audiologist does not even bother testing me for words anymore. I have been told that “your hearing loss is not that bad”, so I don’t need to be tested for words. There is no arguing with him on this matter, with the presumption that I am a patient who does not possess an in-depth understanding of the test. After a lifetime of hearing tests, however, I certainly know enough to have a cheat method in place. Though it may mean numbers I do not want to see in the future, I hope somebody out there comes up with a cheat-proof test. If not, then I hope, at least, I gain confidence and lose the reflex of coming to a hearing test prepared to cheat.

9 thoughts on “Cheating the Test”

  1. I always felt like the hearing tests were pointless and dishonest because I don’t think they’re truly testing my hearing. It’s not a real environment, it’s not what I truly hear when I’m in the classroom or in a group of friends trying to make out sounds. Tones and pitches and noises, deciphering ice cream and football from baseball and boy and girl and… Popcorn. Those words drive me nuts. I once asked my audiologist to use other words that I couldn’t just know or guess and she said she was testing the DB- like the loud and softness, and it didn’t matter if I knew the words or not.. But i’m not sure I really believe that.

    So I cheat too. I do. You are not alone and you are so right that it’s not just us who suffer, but the people around us too… I have never considered that.

  2. You are talking only about the speech reception threshold (SRT) part of hearing tests using spondees (words with equal emphasis on both syllables). They are supposed to be easy to recognize, that is part of the test and really only affects the test by about 5 decibels at the most. In other words, if you took the SRT part of the test in a foreign language you are unfamiliar with then your test results would not be more than 5dB worse. (My audiologist humored me one time after I expressed the same misgivings as you and did just that to prove it to me and my test was only 2dB worse.) So it is not cheating to know the spondees and it is actually preferred that you do know them.

    The speech discrimination part of hearing tests uses a larger list of words that are phonetically balanced of various lengths. This part you could cheat on but only for worse test results not better, if you thought you understood the word to be gobbledygook but you weren’t sure so you said “don’t know” and the word really was gobbledygook that could impair your score. I have given my audi some humorous moments repeating what I thought I heard as apparently I was nowhere near the given word (when they have to stop testing for a minute so they can stop laughing you just know you missed that word.)

    I can’t really address the beep part of the tests, but my guess is that your audiologist has figured out how to fool you on those parts rather than you fooling them.

    So don’t feel guilty you aren’t cheating.

  3. You are NOT cheating. The tests are truly faulty. I know. Back in 2006 I was evaluated for a cochlear implant. My hearing loss, on paper, according to my audiogram certainly pointed to my being a candidate for a CI. However, I was denied. Why? Because I “aced” the word/speech recognition test. It is the SAME test I was given at age 4, again at age 5, age 6 and so on until there I was at age 46. I could recite the word list from memory. It did not occur to me to cheat on the test. I KNEW I had a severe to profound hearing loss. I knew I was struggling mightily with it – on the phone, in noisy situations. I knew that it was negatively affecting my social life, my professional life, and my familial life. I had no reason to cheat. I was sure I would be approved. But I was not. And without that approval insurance would never cover the cost of a cochlear implant and surgery. So, I gave up and put it out of my mind. In 2013, I came into contact with a cochlear implant surgeon in Israel. He asked me why I do not have a CI. So, I told him this story. He said I should be re-evaluated. I was. But I live in Israel now, not in the US. I was tested. My new audiogram – it was the same as all the other audiograms dating back to before 2006! But – the speech/word recognition test??? I did VERY VERY poorly? Why? Did I cheat??? NOPE. I did not have to. The test was administered in HEBREW. And while I do speak quite a bit of Hebrew I do not have the intimate knowledge of the language that I do in English, and I certainly had zero familiarity with the word lists used for the hearing tests. And thus, I did very poorly. The audiologist was puzzled. How could it be that I could generate the same audiogram but do so differently on the speech recognition part of the test? She decided that it must be faulty equipment. So she moved me to another testing room and she repeated the test. Same results! She then repeated the test at a MUCH higher volume. Same results (I need clarity, not volume!). It was then that she began to understand what was happening. And I was approved for the CI. (But I am STILL waiting for the surgery date, the approval came through almost four months ago). So, as far as I am concerned – if a person with a severe to profound hearing loss, who happens to function very highly but is still struggling, wants a CI or stronger HA’s, for their own sake they MUST “cheat” on tests that audiologists who do not have hearing problems insist are not faulty – when in fact they are!

  4. There are other vocabulary lists audiologists use, I suggest I ask for an alternative list the next time you get tested. I did so on the last one and my speech dicrimination was 68% vs.92% it usually is with the same old-same old list they’ve used for at least 47 years that I’ve been taking them, and I feel it was a much more accurate result. I’m not s musician, so I don’t get how you are cheating on the pure tone test. Good luck with getting them to change that method.

  5. This is precisely why as audiologists we need to expand our testing protocols to include word discrimination in noise, Quick Speech in Noise, and also be prepared to rotate discrimination tests with patients. I would also encourage the use of Bekesy audiometry for those who do try to “cheat” on pure tones. It is easy to “go through the motions”, but much better for our patients and our own peace of mind to rotate word lists and give our patients a greater challenge.

  6. There are two types of speech tests. The ones with spondees with words like popcorn, baseball, hotdog are supposed to be words you recognize thus we have to familiarize them to you at higher levels before we find threshold to speech with words you recognize. This is then correlated to the threshold of tones. Then there is a different speech test with a list of 25 or 50 words like dust, chew, rat. There are many word lists, though several audiologist use the same 2 lists. They should use a cd not live voice and should give you different lists if you have had that many evaluations. Most people do not actually have these memorized because they are simple and not memorable and can be done in reverse order. However They should be using different pb lists with repeated hearing testing. As far as memorizing the tone order. It sounds like if you recognize a pattern then the audiologist is not providing the tones in random order or they are and since you are not hearing all of those tones, you just think it is a recognizable pattern. There are many things audiologist can and do that you likely don’t realize are being done to be sure it is a valid test. The audiogram is only a rudimentary way to test peripheral hearing. It is not meant to be the test of how you perform in noise or out in the real world. It is a place to start to understand where you are at. The System for hearing is truly remarkable and is very complex!

  7. I read your article and I have to say congratulations. You have learned to cope with your disability very well in my view – much better than a lot of us. Keep working at your interpretion techniques- they can only help. If only there was a camera that focused on the speaker’s lips even when they turn away.
    I also wonder if your expectations are somewhat high for what a “valid” test will give you. The technology won’t give you back what’s gone within your ear. It can only help. They didn’t call it an “aid” for nothing.
    Your more recent post on having a “designated” listening assistant is what I must use. My wife fills in here for me at family events. And I will start taking on-line lip reading lessons for the speech in noise situations. Lately, the Phonak Roger Pen has been a blessing for me in restaurant situations. When used in the lanyard position it does the job like no premium hearing aid I’ve come across can on it’s own.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *