Students outwit remote-learning algorithm to boost grades

A Los Angeles family figured out how to game the system using specific keywords

A Southern California seventh grader and his mother have tricked an online learning platform into giving him 100% grades.

According to a Tuesday report in The Verge, 12-year-old Lazare Simmons had completed the first assignment for his history class on the virtual Edgenuity and received a 50% grade.

His mother, Dana Simmons, had told him that some teachers grade more harshly than others, but Lazare explained he had received the marks less than a second after submitting his answers.


That's when it clicked for Dana: her son was being graded by an algorithm.

In studying Lazare's schoolwork over the next few days, she examined the correct answers, which were revealed at the end of each assignment. Upon further observing the platform, Dana concluded that Edgenuity’s Artificial Intelligence was scanning for specific keywords in students' answers.

The Lazares decided to alter the way the questions were answered, writing two long sentences followed by a disjointed list of keywords relevant to the questions.

They were able to dig keywords out of the article or video the questions were based on.

Edgenuity's online help center reportedly also hints that this may be by design. The website explains some answers receive 0% if they don't include keywords and 100% if they include at least one. Others can earn a certain percentage based on the number of keywords used.

The platform offers hundreds of online classes for middle and high school students, including Advanced Placement and elective classes, made up of instructional videos, problems and tests.

More than 20,000 schools currently use the platform.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Los Angeles Unified School District's semester is entirely online.

In changing tactics using Edgenuity, Lazare now receives perfect percentages, and he's not the only one. Other students confirmed to The Verge that they had used similar strategies and, if stumped, most of the keywords were found online.

While teachers do have the ability to review any content students submit and the power to override Edgenuity’s assigned grades, it apparently hasn't happened that often.

The transition to remote learning programs has been hard for many school districts across the country.

Parents in Tennessee have revolted against their district’s use of Edgenuity and Schoology, alleging that technological hiccups have impacted their students' grades.


In Colorado, a district in Steamboat Springs had its enrollment period disrupted when Edgenuity malfunctioned.

Dana Simmons worries about her son's future.

“He’s getting an A+ because his parents have graduate degrees and have an interest in tech,” she told The Verge. “Otherwise he would still be getting Fs. What does that tell you about [...] the digital divide in this online learning environment?”