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I Was Part of a High School Cheating Mafia

Cheating is on the rise — and as a former capo in a sophisticated operation, I’m not surprised

We called ourselves “rats” — a mafia of high school cheaters with various ranks, responsibilities and expertise. Our operation infiltrated every subject, from precalculus and physics to Spanish and statistics.

There was Randie — our insider — a girl who had a learning disability and was therefore allowed to take precalculus exams without any time constraints and before anyone else. Her responsibility was to retrieve the exams in exchange for exams from other classes. Tanner* and Greg* were the architects of the operation, two wildly different students motivated by the same understanding that, if you wanted to get into a halfway decent college among a sea of prep-school overachievers, you had to cheat your way in.

We also employed a math tutor who made sure that the answers to the test questions we had retrieved were 95 percent right (100 percent was too obvious). As for me, well, I was the reluctant member of the family — implicated by close ties with the heads of the operation and motivated by an absolute ineptitude when it came to logarithms.

In 2007, at the height of our cheating prowess and after nearly an entire school year of having every single precalculus exam in our hands before test day, the hierarchical operation came tumbling down. That is, we got caught.

Well, I didn’t get caught. But enough other people were reprimanded and/or expelled for it to become, per one of our school administrators, “the biggest cheating scandal in school history.” It had all come to a head after three students broke into a teacher’s office after school hours to retrieve a Spanish quiz they’d already cheated on, so they could change their answers to protect themselves from getting caught for having the same answers on a quiz for which the teacher had later changed the questions. That’s right, cheating had become so pervasive that we weren’t even reading the questions anymore.

After they were caught, 17 other implicated students, out of a class of 96, were escorted into the headmaster’s office and interrogated individually for the mistakes of three students who had graduated from cheating in high school to breaking and entering into classrooms. We got cocky. Shit got ugly. Fingers were pointed, and like any other mafia-esque operation, we were brought down by our arrogance.

Recently, I was brought back to those days of beautiful corruption. According to Science Daily, a recent study out of Swansea University found that there’s been a sharp rise in essay cheating globally, with millions of students involved. “The findings of the research show that as many as one in seven recent graduates may have paid someone to undertake their assignment for them, potentially representing 31 million students across the globe,” reported Science Daily. To that end, a recent ABCNEWS Primetime poll of 12- to 17-year-olds found that seven in 10 students say at least some kids in their school cheat on tests. “Six in 10 have friends who’ve cheated. About one in three say they themselves have cheated, rising to 43 percent of older teens. And most say cheaters don’t get caught,” reported ABC News.

In other words, according to the numbers, cheating in school is just a facet of being in school. “Any homework assignment that goes home, I assume that my students have cheated on it,” says Lisa Amstutz, a high school teacher at an American school in Panama. For that reason, Amstutz — who defines cheating as anything that’s not coming from your own brain — says she doesn’t designate much of a grade percentage value for homework assignments.

When I ask her about some of the new, innovative ways students in her classes often cheat, she says that students have figured out how to outsmart online programs that check for plagiarism like TurnItIn.com. “They know that if they turn it in as a PDF instead of a Word document, the program can’t track plagiarized excerpts,” she says. Another way students cheat the system is by typing the same word 500 times in white font in order to meet a word count minimum, so that based on the program’s calculations, the assignment meets the word count. “But when it’s printed out and turned in, the white ink doesn’t show up,” says Amstutz. “It just looks like white space.”

One other loophole, according to a high school student I spoke to who wishes to remain anonymous for obvious reasons (same with “Tanner” and “Greg”), is putting a period or a letter in the spaces between every line in white font, which completely throws off the algorithm of the online plagiarism checker.

Surprisingly, however, Amstutz tells me that the most successful forms of cheating are the least innovative. “We had one class where all the teachers knew the students were cheating but we couldn’t figure out how,” she says. “We later found out that they were just sharing an eraser with answers on it. ‘Like hey, can I borrow that eraser.’ It’s super old-school.”

The same anonymous student agrees. “It depends on the teacher,” he says. “With older teachers it’s ridiculously easy to whisper and talk during exams.” Other methods of cheating, he says, also fall into the category of “old school” methods. “People still write on their hands in code,” he explains. “If they need to know a list in order they’ll just write down an acronym.” A slightly more crafty method, he adds, involves writing notes inside the labels of water bottles they bring into an exam and leave on their desk.

Another middle school teacher who also requested that she remain anonymous tells me that students tend to cheat more on longer written assignments, since they believe it’s harder for a teacher to detect cheating in longer, more involved pieces. “They’re banking on the fact that with 130 papers to read and grade that a teacher won’t be able to remember the content of each and every paper, but WE DO!” she says.

So what happens to the students who get caught cheating?

“One of my friends got caught on his phone during a Spanish quiz — it went on his record and his mom was notified,” the anonymous student I spoke to tells me. “Plagiarism on homework, that’s usually a warning. Cheating on a small quiz results in a zero on the quiz. Third stage is cheating on a final or a test, and the consequence is a Saturday detention.”

That means unlike my high school, where 27 students were on the verge of being suspended and where three of them were actually expelled, at this student’s school, things are very different. “My school is lenient on cheaters because it makes them look bad to suspend or expel students,” he tells me.

Amstutz also says that expulsions are rare. “What we find is if you hit kids hard in the grade book immediately, they stop,” she tells me. “If you plagiarize, you fail and that’s it. I make an over-the-top big deal about it the first time so it doesn’t happen again.”

As for other methods Amstutz uses to prevent students from cheating in the first place, she says that the first thing she does is have her students fill out handwritten writing assignments in class with no access to a laptop. “I want to see what their handwriting looks like,” she says. “That way I can see what their natural rhythm and flow looks like.” Additionally, Amstutz says she includes a speech or conversation as part of the final exam, so she can assess what students actually know. Still, she says, students cheat.

“Students want good grades, but they don’t want to do the work,” she says. According to Amstutz, students are also motivated to cheat by the pressure their parents put on them to get good grades. “Students don’t want to be in trouble for low performance,” she adds. For that reason, the anonymous middle school teacher I spoke to told me that she thinks the kids who don’t care about school or grades never cheat. “They can’t be bothered,” she says. “It’s the kids who don’t want to put in the effort but want the prestige of an ‘A’ who are the biggest offenders. The lure is addicting.”

Speaking for myself, I too remember that my sole motivation for cheating began because I felt overwhelmed by AP courses, and the impression that’s burned into every student’s skull from the moment they enter high school — if you don’t get good grades and get into a great college, you’re going to end up flipping burgers at McDonald’s.

Luckily, I never got caught, I went to a decent college and I’m at least okay enough to be telling this story. As for my friends — the heads of our “rat” family that were expelled from my high school for their subterfuge and unlawful entry — one of them works at LinkedIn and the other is a film director.

So kids, the moral of this story is, don’t get caught cheating. But even if you do, well, that’s probably okay too.