Simmons, who is a history professor herself. Then, Lazare clarified that he’d received his grade less than a second after submitting his answers. A teacher couldn’t have read his response in that time, Simmons knew — her son was being graded by an algorithm.
Simmons watched Lazare complete more assignments. She looked at the correct answers, which Edgenuity revealed at the end. She surmised that Edgenuity’s AI was scanning for specific keywords that it expected to see in students’ answers. And she decided to game it.
Now, for every short-answer question, Lazare writes two long sentences followed by a disjointed list of keywords — anything that seems relevant to the question. “The questions are things like… ‘What was the advantage of Constantinople’s location for the power of the Byzantine empire,’” Simmons says. “So you go through, okay, what are the possible keywords that are associated with this? Wealth, caravan, ship, India, China, Middle East, he just threw all of those words in.”
“I wanted to game it because I felt like it was an easy way to get a good grade,” Lazare told The Verge. He usually digs the keywords out of the article or video the question is based on.
Apparently, that “word salad” is enough to get a perfect grade on any short-answer question in an Edgenuity test.
Edgenuity didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment, but the company’s online help center suggests this may be by design. According to the website, answers to certain questions receive 0% if they include no keywords, and 100% if they include at least one. Other questions earn a certain percentage based on the number of keywords included.
One student, who told me he wouldn’t have passed his Algebra 2 class without the exploit, said he’s been able to find lists of the exact keywords or sample answers that his short-answer questions are looking for — he says you can find them online “nine times out of ten.” Rather than listing out the terms he finds, though, he tried to work three into each of his answers. (“Any good cheater doesn’t aim for a perfect score,” he explained.)