11/01/2012 10:55 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

No Cheater Left Behind

I wrote papers for students for ten years. I helped them cheat and I made a living doing it. Not a great living, but a living nonetheless.

Now, I'm retired from paper-writing and it feels good. I feel like a recovering drug addict, like I'm standing up and telling you about my sordid past.

As in many tales of drug-induced excess, I have seen things that would horrify the clean-living among you. But I'm not referring to the cheating, the dishonesty or even the general crappiness of some colleges. I got used to all of that stuff, even desensitized to it for a time.

Something that I never got used to, to which I never felt desensitized, which I even suspected was getting worse all the time, was the declining stock of students infiltrating our system of higher education. I am, by no means, an elitist. I don't have the income for it. But I find it disturbing that we have so recklessly diluted the pool of students who are deemed college-worthy. Quality control is a thing of the past, due at least in part to the turnstile magic of No Child Left Behind.

Under immense pressure to reach a 2014 deadline of 100 percent student proficiency, our schools have been transformed into standardized-testing factories, our teachers into assembly-line workers, and our graduation rates into production deadlines.

Basically, our federal educational policy dating back to George Dubya's first term is that students should just be better, that they should all graduate and that they should all go to college.

Ergo, your head could be stuffed with Styrofoam peanuts where your brain should be, and your high-school guidance counselor will still hand you a bunch of college application literature -- probably geared toward those universities best-suited to the needs of the polystyrene-brained individual -- and urge you to borrow an enormous sum of student loan money to pay for it all.

Responding to the clamorous discontent of the educational community, the Obama Administration ran the end-around play on the 100 percent proficiency policy, distributing waivers to 32 states and the District of Columbia allowing them to set their own proficiency standards. Of course, this only undermines our poor educational policy. It does not fix it.

The continued emphasis on standardized testing allows students to develop, and subsequently hide, critical deficiencies in reading, writing and research. For many, these deficiencies will remain hidden even to themselves until they've already successfully navigated the college admissions process. This condition also feeds into the highly dubious mission of For-Profit colleges, who lure lower performing students with collegiate ambitions by dangling idle promises of future employability.

And it is at least one of the reasons that I had so much work as a paper-writer.

If No Child Left Behind is an auto-immune disease, gradually infiltrating a whole system, settling onto its host and eroding its ability to produce healthy cells, my customers have been those cells most infected by the virus, often twisting desperately against the throes of a slow, painful educational death.

These kids are screwed. The students that would eventually become my customers -- because of their deficiencies; because they knew of no other way to get through school; because they had never been allowed to fail or forced to learn from it; because they believed they had no other choice -- they are screwed. They stumble through high school, walk at graduation and -- under enormous parental, cultural and economic pressure -- make the increasingly costly investment in college.

They can't read. They can't write. They can't conduct research. So many of my customer interactions played out like an Andy Kaufman routine:

"Hello! I need you big help!"

"Add conjunctions to make the essay smoothy"

"The Prague Spring advertently elaborates the opinionated equation within the Soviets and the governmental oppression on the mass."

Beyond the ethical relief of leaving the paper-writing business, it's really nice that I don't have to read this crap anymore.

College professors, on the other hand, have to read this crap all the time. What's more, they have to grade it. I believe that most professors teach out of a sense of intellectual curiosity, a passion for academic rigor and a desire to advance our shared knowledge in a chosen discipline. It must be frustrating, then, to focus instead on teaching 20-year-olds to use commas, spell-check or word combinations that translate into actual sentences.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in October 2011, 68.3 percent of high school graduates were enrolled in colleges or universities. However, according to an L.A. Times article from just last month, only 43 percent of high school seniors demonstrated educational readiness on their College Board exams.

Even a product of NCLB testing standards can do the math on that one.

There is a huge gap between the number of people with the academic tools needed to take advantage of an undergraduate education and the number of people pursuing a degree. If we intend to alleviate the student-cheating crisis, it may help to understand that most of my customers existed in that limbo between the ambition and the ability to handle college.

No Child Left Behind may be as great a boon to the paper-writing business as has been the Internet. The web makes it easier for customers to find the supply. But No Child Left Behind creates a portion of the demand. This policy allows public schools to call students proficient without ever ensuring that they've learned to read, write or research. Even before students arrive at colleges petrified and in over their heads, even before they begin to accumulate massive debt without gaining meaningful skills for future employment, even before universities have a chance to fleece them of their future earnings, our public schools are stunting their ability to learn.

No Child Left Behind was implemented in 2002, incidentally the same year that I graduated from college. During the subsequent decade, in which I profited from alarming patterns of student inadequacy, I saw daily evidence of the product created by our schools under the current legislation.

Teachers complain bitterly (and rightly) of the time wasted preparing for standardized testing; of the damage done to educational creativity by NCLB's punitive evaluation system; of the critical learning opportunities that have been relegated or dismantled in its wake. Some teachers just keep their mouths shut and help their students cheat on state-administered tests as per scandals unfolding in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Baltimore and a host of other school districts. Whatever one's chosen coping method, most teachers hate No Child Left Behind.

As for professors, if they don't hate No Child Left Behind, or if they simply don't consider it, they really should. Lowered standards are making their jobs a whole lot harder and far less rewarding. It's helping to create a particular population of students with a heightened motive for cheating in college.

Many of the students who opt to cheat aren't doing it because they are malicious, or evil, or even stupid. Many of them are doing it because they have been grossly underserved by the educational system, because short of cheating, they can't see a way out of the nightmare which has been their life in academics. I can assure you, the most important demographic of cheating students is comprised of people who felt they had no other choice.

I know how worried we are that cheaters will become doctors and civil engineers, that all of this cheating is leading to malpractice, bridge collapses and a general breakdown in professional competence. Well, 50 percent of all graduates are either facing unemployment or work that doesn't require a college degree. I'm willing to bet that the poor, desperate and under-prepared college entrants of today are not performing your surgery, building your bridge or doing anything else with higher stakes than overcooking your lunch. I'm willing to bet that they are tomorrow's poor, desperate, and under-qualified adults... saddled with crippling debt.

Cheaters like that don't think they're getting the last laugh. It isn't that they intend to undermine the educational process. They don't have any illusions about what they are accomplishing. It makes no impact to explain that they're only cheating themselves. They know how desperate their own situation is. However, thanks to a formative public education in which standardized testing now occupies more importance than training in critical learning skills like reading, writing and research, most won't have come face to face with that desperation until it's already too late.

In one week, we will go to the polls to elect our president. And with a national educational policy now a decade old and largely discredited by inadequacy and scandal, this is a good time to seriously re-evaluate the current emphasis on standardized testing in our public schools. Colleges scramble to pinpoint the reasons for cheating, to identify those most likely to do it, to curtail a practice that most professors will admit is epidemic. But every year, more cheating detection software, more stringent testing policies and more pronounced honor codes cannot change the fact that a new crop of desperate, academically malnourished freshmen will show up every year and will, by any means necessary, attempt not to be left behind.