Students at Steinmetz High School are less than enthusiastic about anything in the classroom, except for Jolie Fitch, a junior who enjoys Dr. Jerry Plecki's English class and is involved heavily in all discussions, especially on his favorite book Paradise Lost. Aside from teaching, Dr. Plecki is offered the position of Academic Decathlon coach, a job all the other teachers consider to be a waste of time for them as well as the students. Dr. Plecki holds an open call for the students after class, but no one arrives to participate. He is about to leave for the day when Jolie comes in and convinces him that he needs to look for the smarter students and recruit them. He succeeds in recruiting seven students (Darius, Matt, Paul, Dominik, Irwin, Agnieska, and Jolie). They spend the next few months studying hard for the regional competition.
On the day of competition, the team feels intimidated as they face their biggest competition: Whitney Young Magnet High School. The school has consistently won the regional and state competitions for almost a decade. At the end of the decathlon, as expected, Whitney Young is victorious and Steinmetz places 5th overall. Fortunately, any school that places in the top five moves on to the state competition. Overwhelmed with the anxiety of having to face Whitney Young in the next round, the students begin to feel that the whole decathlon is a waste of their time. However, an opportunity to cheat arises when Matt's friend steals a copy of the test for the state finals and gives it to him. Irwin takes the exam and gives it to Dr. Plecki. Dr. Plecki feels that using the test is the team's best chance to defeat Whitney Young at state.
After some persuasive discussion, all seven members agree to dismiss their conflicting feelings about cheating and begin reviewing the booklet, copying the answers on various items (calculators, shoes, a piece of gum, etc.). Dr. Plecki then takes Irwin out to the hall and explains that because he had the lowest scores in the group, he will be out of the state competition; however, he will be guaranteed a spot in nationals. Though Irwin is upset by the news, he agrees to go along with it.
On the day of the state finals, a much more confident Steinmetz meets Whitney Young again, with an opportunity to end their long winning streak. The Steinmetz team successfully gets through the exams with the answers they secretly wrote down and with Jolie coaching them in the Super Quiz. At the end of the day, Steinmetz is victorious and wins the state finals with an overall score of 49,000. Whitney Young is upset and suspicious about how Steinmetz could have improved their score so dramatically within such a short timeframe.
As the six members and Dr. Plecki celebrate their victory, a spiteful Irwin writes an essay, detailing how he feels betrayed by Dr. Plecki and how they received an advance copy of the test. Suspicions heighten when the essay is turned in to the principal, who questions Irwin about the truth of his essay. The Illinois Academic Decathlon board arrives at the school with news that the team will need to take a re-test to validate their scores, noting that their state score was nearly 10,000 points higher than their regional score. If they refuse, they will lose their title as champions. Feeling betrayed by Irwin and angered by the board's ultimatum, they refuse to take the re-test and plan to protect their title and reputation by seeking an injunction to halt the state from re-testing them.
As the media siege becomes more and more brutal, the Steinmetz team realizes they have no one to trust or confide in but themselves, knowing that if they are exposed, they will lose everything. Then a bombshell is dropped when Angela Lam, a student on the Academic Decathlon team from the year before, talks to the press about how she was given the answers to the Super Quiz in the state competition by Dr. Plecki. She encourages the current team members to come clean if they cheated. Dr. Plecki is immediately suspended from his teaching duties and the team members are taken to the board of education headquarters where they are interrogated individually. Despite being pressured, they refuse to come clean and say they did not cheat. However, Dominik ultimately breaks and confesses that they did cheat after a heart to heart talk with one of the investigators.
As a result, the state title is stripped from Steinmetz and awarded to Whitney Young. Dr. Plecki is fired from Steinmetz High School, and the team members are harassed by the other students for ruining their reputation. Dr. Plecki decides to leave Chicago in hopes the media will go away and leave the team members alone. Before he leaves, he meets with his team one last time by Lake Michigan in downtown Chicago. The students present him with a gift: John Milton's book Paradise Lost signed by the team and the gold medal in Language and Literature that they didn't return to the board. With the team disbanded and Dr. Plecki now gone, Jolie feels that she's lost a mentor that actually cared about her academic possibilities and her team that supported each other. In the end, Jolie gets accepted into college as the admissions board believed that her experience on the Academic Decathlon team allowed her to build character, and recognizes the merit of her achievements without cheating.
In the epilogue, it is stated that Dominik, Agneiska, and Paul went off to college, Matt worked in a warehouse, Darius' whereabouts are unknown, Irwin went to college to become a journalist, and Dr. Plecki started a business.
As a result of the 1995 cheating scandal, Steinmetz High School was banned from fielding an Academic Decathlon team for ten years. They returned to the competition in 2006.Jeff Daniels as Dr. Gerard Plecki
Jena Malone as Jolie Fitch
Paul Sorvino as Constantine Kiamos
Luke Edwards as Darius Bettus
Blake Heron as Matt Kur
Dov Tiefenbach as Irwin Flickas