How to catch a cheater

I proctored the AIME II contest this week, and caught a cheater. Here are some details and thoughts about the occasion.

At about 4pm the day before the contest, I started getting emails and phone calls from parents, from tutors, some students, and even my math colleagues at Bard who had been contacted as well, in desperate attempts to contact me. Their children had all planned to take the contest at Kean University in NJ, but for logistic reasons, the contest manager had to cancel, less than 24 hours in advance.

Up until then, I only expected to proctor one student, since the other two AIME qualifiers from when we hosted the AMC 10B and AMC 12B contests had also qualified on the A schedule a few weeks earlier. But now I imagined a packed room with 20 or 30 AIME students! The AMC response ( was quick and responsive, and they granted permission to include as many students as I had AIME answer forms for (I counted, and had 20 forms), even though I had registered and paid for only 10 students.

I passed on the good news to everyone, and quickly drafted out a liability and photo release form for the newcomers, along with detailed instructions on how to drive up to Bard College (more than 2 hours away from New Jersey) the next morning.

But then, over the next few hours, all of them found closer places, and cancelled, thankful that the worst case scenario – a long drive up to the Hudson Valley – was there if needed, but the drive could be avoided.

All but one, that is: the cheater. He is a high school freshman at one of New Jersey’s most prestigious public high schools. He was driven up by his math competition tutor, who described himself as a friend of the family. He coaches the cheater, and four other NJ students in competition math. All the rest of the students had also planned to come up to take the AIME II at Bard, but had found more convenient locations overnight.

They arrived at Bard, and were welcomed in by the local math student (a middle school student) who had qualified, and his mom. When I arrived a little later, I set up the room, and welcomed the mom and the tutor to enjoy Bard College, a wonderfully secluded campus where they could stretch their legs, catch breathtaking views of the Catskill Mountains and the Hudson River, and explore eclectic architecture (including a Frank Gehry building in north campus). Or, they could set up their laptops with Bard’s wifi, and catch up on work. Bard is on spring break this week, so parking is plentiful, and so are study nooks.

I helped the students bubble in the answer forms with their names and other information (kids these days don’t remember their street addresses), and made sure they understood the AIME contest rules. Then I started the exam by clicking on the countdown timer (Google search for “internet timer”) set to 3 hours.

Ten minutes later, the cheater pulled a cell phone out of his pocket and put in on his lap. Did he not understand that electronic devices were strictly not allowed on the AIME? I walked over to him and confiscated his phone immediately. I let him continue the exam, because I saw that he hadn’t received any information from the phone.

In the middle of the exam, he excused himself to go to the bathroom. He returned a few minutes later. Later, with half an hour to go, he excused himself again to go to the bathroom and left the room.

A minute later, the other student’s mom opened the door to ask me a question. In the hallway, she told me that the NJ student had gone outside. He told her that he needed to get his photo ID, and she wondered if it was okay that her son didn’t have an ID with him. She was worried about that, but I reassured her that since her son had been to the AMC contests at Bard for several years in a row, I recognized him, and no ID was needed.

Then the other student came back from outside, not from the bathroom. That was strange. Back in the testing room, the NJ student got back to work, and started to open up a folded piece of paper. I stood up and walked over to him, explaining that outside notes are not allowed on the exam, and asked him to hand it over. I unfolded the paper, and found a numbered list of 3 digit numbers. The answer to each AIME problem is a 3 digit number.

I was shocked at how blatant this student was in his cheating, and how easy he was to catch.

I decided to let him continue working, mostly to avoid distracting the other student, and also to maintain control over the situation.

When the time was up, I asked the students to sign the statement on their answer form that all the work on the contest was their own. Both students signed. I collected the answer forms and excused them from the testing room.

I told the NJ student that I wanted to speak with him and with his tutor, and he went outside to the parking lot. Then I took the opportunity to thank the local student and his mom, and to ask what problems he found interesting. They left soon after that.

But the NJ student and his tutor didn’t come back. I waited and waited, and then gathered my things and started leaving. Funny – I still had the student’s cell phone and his cheat sheet. Right before I left the building – it seemed about half an hour after the contest ended – the tutor appeared.

The tutor asked what had happened. We talked, and the tutor explained that he had given the student the answers on a sheet of paper, because he thought the exam was over (it was just after 12pm when I confiscated it).

He told me that one of his other NJ students had finished the exam early, about 10am, at some NJ location, and texted an image of the exam to him, which he worked on in his car.

The student showed up soon after that, and I talked with them both. The student admitted to cheating, and said that he wanted the opportunity to take the USAMO. He said that the tutor didn’t know about the cheating, but I don’t believe him. The tutor also claimed not to know about the cheating, even though he admitted to receiving an electronic copy of the contest around 10am, during the exam, working on it, and handing his student a neatly-written list of answers. He didn’t seem at all upset that his student had lied to him, and asked me to give his student a chance and to forgive the cheating.

It was fascinating to interview a cheater and his accomplice, and to feel in control of the situation. I asked them question after question to collect information to share with the AMC. I was curious if they would show any remorse for what they had done, and so I asked them questions to open opportunities for that. But there was no remorse at all, so I ended the conversation and left.

The cheater ran after me again to ask for his cell phone back, but I refused to, and told him to email me and I’d ship it back to him.

The cheating incident is over, but it leaves me with some questions. If you have answers, please leave a comment!

  1. How important is it to protect the cheater’s identity? I shared his name and other information with the AMC, of course. But I could also easily contact his high school through personal contacts. I could publish his name on the web. I could contact the Kean University contest manager, and other university based contact managers in the region to let them know. Should I take any or all of those steps? Or leave it to the AMC to take action.
  2. Is it important to protect the tutor’s identity? I have contact information for another of his students and that student’s father. What action on my part is appropriate? I was offended on many levels that this tutor placed no priority at all on honesty. In fact, he is a key figure in a cheating gang. If he were tutoring my child, I would want to know.
  3. How welcoming should I be of AIME students from outside the Bard Math Circle community? I want to promote and develop a culture of math enrichment in the Mid-Hudson Valley. I want to open up opportunities for students whose schools don’t have a math club, a math team or a math circle. But this cheating incident was very, very disappointing.
  4. What would you do with the cell phone? (I ended up shipping it to his parents by express mail, carefully bubble wrapped and insured. I included a brief letter explaining that the phone had been confiscated from their son during the AIME exam.)









6 responses to “How to catch a cheater”

  1. Aaron Schumacher Avatar

    I think everyone with a current relationship with the cheater (parents, school, etc.) should be made fully aware of the cheating and the involvement of the “tutor.” In the case of the “tutor” a public outing in addition to the same sorts of private contacts may be appropriate. Down with cheating!

  2. Riley John Gibbs Avatar
    Riley John Gibbs

    I think you ought not to remove the student’s anonymity and let the AMC handle the sanctions themselves. If the student’s parents know, the only other possible persons worth advising of the situation may be his school directly.

    As for the tutor, while there is no proof that he was intentionally helping the student cheat—though it seems pretty damning—there is also no organization that you can report him to that can then take appropriate action. Tutors’ businesses are built largely on relationships and word of mouth, and that ought to work both ways. Perhaps the most professional way to handle it would be to inform the tutor that you are going to contact his other pupils’ parents and let them know what happened.

    Amazing how blatant the student was about it. Sloppy, even. I wonder even why he needed a sheet of paper with the answers rather than memorizing them, something he could probably do within a couple of minutes. Perhaps subconsciously he wanted to get caught?

  3. Lauren Rose Avatar
    Lauren Rose

    Wow Japheth, I’m sorry I wasn’t there to help. How devastating that students and their tutors are so intent on success that they would stoop so low as to cheat. It sounds like you handled a difficult situation very well. I think the parents and the student’s school should be notified. I also think the tutor’s business should be reported to the Better Business Administration or some other entity. How can the tutor claim not to have known this student was cheating? If the exam was over they should have just driven off and the student could have been given the answers in the car on the way home. I also wonder about the other student of the tutor who texted the answer sheet. I thought there were strict rules about doing anything like this before everyone had completed the exam.

  4. japheth Avatar

    I’m very cautious about outing and publicly shaming the student, and to a somewhat lesser extent, his tutor. Rather, I think that there are more effective ways that follow policy that are not potentially damaging. If everyone was publicly shamed for every bad decision made, what kind of world would that be? But yes, the shaming policy did cross my mind.
    The short list of people and organizations that should know about this are: (1) The AMC, (2) The parents, (3) The student’s school, (4), the parents of the tutor’s other students, (5) other AMC contest administrators in the region. So far just (1) and (2) know.
    Regarding whether the student subconsciously wanted to be caught. Maybe! He certainly could have stopped making bad decisions several times, when it seemed obvious that I was aware of what he was doing.

  5. allenknutson Avatar

    I’m in favor of shaming the tutor and not the student, principally because I see the tutor as old enough to be possibly unreformable but the student possibly reformable. But of course it’s hard because you caught the student, and you didn’t really catch the tutor. I have to admit I’d be terrified of a defamation lawsuit from the tutor and don’t really see good options. (I do think you handled it very well so far.)

  6. Lori Luo Avatar
    Lori Luo

    Wow! This is shocking! I believe the tutor helped the student and maybe encouraged the student on this cheating incident. We should all know who he is and avoid coached by him. Everyone should be shamed about what he did.

    The kid is only 9th grade, I think he is still young and could learn a good lesson from this. MAA may not allow him taking any AMC /AIME test in the future, and hopefully he learned his life time lesson.

    I hope you are not discouraged by this and continue helping the math community, welcome everyone possible, and you did the right thing on the phone. If it’s up to me, I would ship his phone to MAA, but I’m a mean person, lol.