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'Test taker for hire' | Students are paying to have online courses taken for them

One service offered to do algebra homework for $1.50 a question and take any test or quiz for $25 an hour. And that's just the beginning of the elaborate scheme.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Online courses are more popular than ever in school districts across the Charlotte area, supplementing, and in some cases, even replacing traditional, in-person K-12 classes. 

But there's a startling trend with those online classes: it's easier than ever for students to cheat. WCNC Charlotte's Savannah Levins uncovered an underground operation of people right here in the Charlotte area that's reaching out to students and offering to take those classes for them...for a price. 

It's no surprise that in 2020, online classes, tests and homework portals are becoming increasingly popular. CMS says 162 of their schools currently offer some sort of online class or web-based test and homework portal. 

State Superintendent Mark Johnson says North Carolina districts have been encouraged to implement this kind of technology to supplement traditional learning. 

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"Technology is changing the way we do everything," Johnson said. "It's changing every quickly and that's a positive thing because these online classes, for example, they allow children who might not otherwise be able to learn that content, it gives them that opportunity."

It also gives students a new way to cheat, and all over the internet, legitimate-looking websites are offering to take everything from online tests and homework to entire classes, for a price. They even advertise on local Craigslist pages, using disguised or misleading code names like "cat sitting."

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Using a Google Voice number, WCNC Charlotte reached out to a few of these people and discovered there's a very elaborate scheme when it comes to cheating. 

One offered to do CMS algebra 1 homework for $1.50 per question, and any test or quiz for $25 an hour. Another said they'd write a seventh grade literature essay and take the final exam. They even promised an A or they'd give the money back. 

"That is very much something that should not be happening," Johnson said. 

He says he's working with local districts to raise awareness and determine just how widespread the cheating is. 

"That would start with a school level, that is an honor code violation that's the same as cheating on a test if you were to go into a school and cheat and get caught," Johnson said. 

It goes far beyond just high schools, too. According to an online learning survey, more than one-third of higher education degrees in the U.S. are earned online. With many of these cheating services charging $1,000 for completion of each online college course, someone could pay about $40,000 for an entire 120-credit bachelor's degree without ever looking at the material.

The concern now is if students are getting away with this at a middle and high school level, could the value of a degree as we know it be in jeopardy? North Carolina educators are hoping to intervene before we get to that point. 

"It comes us having to learn how we make sure that people don't abuse that technology," Johnson explained. "So it's definitely something we're all working on together with the districts as we start to expand more digital learning. How do we make sure we do it appropriately?"