When Alexander Levitt moved from New Jersey to Northborough, Massachusetts, and started attending Algonquin Regional High School in 2005, the 17-year-old senior was shocked to find it was a hotbed of cheating. "Kids had programmed answer sheets into their iPods or recorded course materials into their MP3s and played them back during exams, while others had text-messaged test questions to friends," he says. When essays were assigned, some classmates simply cut and pasted text from Web sites directly into their papers. Levitt, who estimates that as many as 80% of Algonquin's 1,350 students cheat, said that the resulting grade inflation bloated the honor roll to include 60% of the student body. "People spent more time trying to cheat than studying," he says. "When I saw them getting the same grades I was, I got really angry. It's just wrong."
Kids have always cheated in school, but today's tech gadgets have made it easier than before. With nearly half of teens and tweens carrying cell phones, answers to test questions can zing around a classroom in minutes. Some students prep for pop quizzes by inputting math formulas or history dates into their programmable calculators. Others use camera phones to picture-message tests to friends outside the classroom. And it takes only a few keystrokes to buy term papers from a growing number of online "paper mills," such as schoolsucks.com, for up to $10 a page. "There's more high-tech cheating than ever," says Donald McCabe, Ph.D., a business professor at Rutgers University and founding president of the Center for Academic Integrity at Duke University.
In a recent survey of 18,000 students at 61 high schools, he found that 66% admitted to cheating on exams and 58% said they had committed plagiarism. "Kids just think, What's the big deal? Everyone does it," says McCabe. Even worse, sophisticated scammers aren't looked down on, but are admired by their peers. In November 2005 a high school junior at the prestigious Boston Latin School reportedly hacked into a teacher's computer using keystroke-recording software and shared questions with other classmates for an upcoming exam. Boston police and U.S. Secret Service agents were called in to investigate. The student still faces criminal prosecution for trespassing and other charges. Still, some kids praised his exploits. "He was smart enough that he didn't need to cheat," says Norris Duncan, 17. "So from a technical standpoint, it's kind of cool what he did."