Googling answers in real time as you take a test. Letting online lectures play on mute while you watch a movie instead. Typing in random letters and numbers as answers and receiving credit.
Those are all moves students and educators told me happen regularly in San Diego Unified’s online credit recovery courses.
On a recent visit to East Village High School, I even watched some of them do it.
There, I saw students Google quiz questions from their online courses and pull up websites where other students have uploaded answers. I saw one student type gobbledygook where short answers were supposed to go – and watched as the computer marked the answer as complete. And I talked with students who said everybody is doing it – whether it’s an online course offered by San Diego Unified or a charter school that offers similar online classes.
“Everyone is cheating. Left and right. Up and down. No matter where you are, someone is cheating. That’s a given,” said Daniel Martinez III, a senior at East Village High School.
Across the district, online courses are enabling thousands of students to get caught up on classes they previously failed – sometimes in a matter of days. But students also have access to the web as they take quizzes and tests, making it possible to find answers to the exact questions that appear on tests.
Teachers and principals – both at East Village High, two other district high schools and a charter school – say they’re virtually powerless to stop it. In theory, instructors can monitor students’ computers as they complete coursework, making sure they’re not Googling answers to tests or quizzes. But because students can complete coursework and tests from home or anywhere else they find internet, it’s impossible for teachers to crack down on cheating that happens outside of school.
District officials have pointed to the fact the courses are vetted and approved by the University of California for rigor. But by students’ own accounts, lack of rigor isn’t the problem. It’s how easy they are to game.
Cheating is as simple as opening a second computer window, Googling quiz questions verbatim, then finding the exact answers that others have downloaded to websites designed to help students study, like Quizlet and Brainly.
“Cheating is 24/7,” said Martinez. “That’s how common it is. At least every online student has been on one of those two websites.”
Screenshots of an Edgenuity quiz appear on the website Quizlet, which some students use to look up answers in real time.
Other school districts have installed software that prevents students from opening multiple windows while they take quizzes and tests. San Diego Unified has not. A district spokesperson said lock-down browsers cause tests to crash.
Among students, teachers and principals, it’s an open secret that cheating is happening, and not just at San Diego Unified schools. Search for “Edgenuity Cheats,” on Google, and you’ll find explainers for how to cheat on tests, find loopholes in the technology or even tips for hacking the system to raise test scores.
That hasn’t stopped district officials from moving to further expand online course offerings. In 2015, the district paid Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Edgenuity $800,000 to develop online courses aligned with entrance requirements to the University of California. In 2016, the district re-upped the contract, for a total of $1.28 million.
And San Diego Unified is in the midst of opening what it calls innovation labs at district high schools, where students can take online classes without leaving school. The district spent about $472,000 on innovation labs at Morse and Crawford high schools, and plans to spend about the same for innovation labs at Lincoln and Hoover high schools.
Officials are betting that if the district expands its online programs, fewer students will leave for charter schools that offer flexible schedules and online courses.
In April, district officials posted an explanation of how the class of 2016 reached a record 91 percent graduation rate – and gave credit in no small part to its online classes:
“One major initiative in particular is showing tremendous promise in helping struggling students succeed. That is the introduction of online credit recovery courses. These courses allow students who previously faced difficulties to complete their work in an online learning environment. Last year, some 20 percent of the graduating class took online courses. These courses offer students more flexibility and the chance to work at their own pace, after school or on weekends. That said, all courses are approved by the University of California to ensure quality and academic rigor.”
But at least for some students, cheating aside, online courses offer questionable educational value.
“I never thought I’d say this, but I actually miss being in a regular class with a regular teacher,” 17-year-old Jakky Nuñez told me as she worked on an online English class.
I asked if she feels she’s learning anything.
“If I’m honest, no. I’m just going through and checking boxes to get it over with,” she said.
How Online Courses Work
In San Diego Unified, online courses generally come in two varieties. If they haven’t previously attempted a course, students can take online classes for first-time credit. If they’ve previously failed a course, students take the credit-recovery option – a pared-down version of the traditional courses they take with teachers.
In both options, courses are officially taught by educators at iHigh Virtual Academy, the district’s headquarters for online classes. Teachers at traditional schools might be assigned to monitor or “coach” students taking online classes, but iHigh teachers assess the work and grade tests with little to no physical interaction with students.
Students have three attempts to pass quizzes and tests, which are multiple choice. And teachers have discretion to allow students more attempts, if needed.
Courses consist of videos – where a miniature teacher pops out of a box in the right-hand corner of the screen and lectures at students – activities for students to complete, quizzes and tests.
Students have to watch the entire videos in order to move on with the rest of the coursework. But many students don’t. Instead, they might mute the virtual teacher and watch a Netflix movie in a second window until the virtual teacher is done lecturing.
Students also have to complete activities, but some have found ways around that, too. Some activities require students to give short answers about the material, but students say they’ve found the program doesn’t monitor (and teachers don’t check) what students write – or whether they’re writing real words at all.
“Here, I’ll show you,” one East Village High student told me. In the answer box, she typed nonsense. For example: “sdoksdogh dspdfs dfkhfjsprf pdsfdpgfj.”
The student submitted the answer and the computer let her move on to the next activity.
Both district officials and teachers familiar with online classes recognize they work best for students who are self-motivated and organized.
Nuñez said with nobody watching, it’s too easy to fall behind in assignments until it’s too late to make up the work. One student in her class hadn’t logged onto the online class for 76 days.
But classes offered for credit recovery pose an even bigger concern.
Credit-recovery courses are geared toward students who’ve previously attempted and failed a traditional course. True to name, these courses help students recover classes quickly, without having to spend an entire semester in the course if they’re proficient in some concepts.
On its face, it makes logical sense: Why make students sit through a semester-long course if they previously struggled on a few specific concepts?
Martinez, for example, had to retake a math class he failed in freshman year, when he was struggling with issues outside of school. Because he knew the material, he was able to recover credits he needed to graduate in just three days.
Credit-recovery courses are divided into sections. Before students begin the course, they’re given a pretest to assess which concepts they’ve already mastered. If students answer at least seven out of 10 pretest questions correctly, they can skip over that section of the course.
The problem, teachers say, is that students can Google answers while they’re taking the pretests, too. So while the computer thinks it’s assessing what kids have already learned, students are sometimes copying and pasting the answers from elsewhere on the internet.
A student’s phone, containing pictures of quizzes and tests. The student said Edgenuity test questions are often repeated when students get second and third attempts to pass quizzes and tests.
Matthew Schneck, a seventh-year teacher at East Village High School, said this is the point that concerns him most about online courses.
“You have a student who is recovering credits. They didn’t learn anything the first time they took the course, and because you’re making it easy for them to copy and paste their way to passing grades, they’re definitely not learning anything the second time around,” he said.
Schneck has been tasked with overseeing a group of students taking online classes at his school. He’s not their actual teacher – that role belongs to an iHigh teacher four miles away – but he’s there to support students and answer questions.
When it comes to testing, though, Schneck isn’t sure what he’s supposed to do. He said he’s never gotten any training or directives for how to proctor tests.
District officials did not produce a policy for what teachers should do come test time, but its press office wrote in an email that teachers “use the same best practices to observe students taking online exams as they do when students take classroom-based exams.”
And that may be true for the summative exam students take at the end of their courses, which has to be done in front of a teacher. The unit quizzes and tests, however, can be taken from anywhere. And in those cases, there’s nothing to stop students from turning to Google.
San Diego Unified officials did not permit Vicki Conway, principal of iHigh Academy, to speak with me for this story. But Schneck said – and three staff members at his school confirmed – that Conway recently visited East Village High and warned educators that rampant cheating is such a concern across the district that it’s difficult to represent Edgenuity’s online courses with integrity.
The district’s press office didn’t confirm or deny Conway’s statement. But Schneck agrees with the sentiment.
“Edgenuity is a joke,” he said. “These online classes are demeaning the value of a San Diego Unified diploma. And they’re demeaning to the teaching profession and what I do in the classroom.”
What’s the Value?
In addition to the boost they give students, online classes are a matter of convenience for the school district.
If students want a class their school doesn’t offer, or doesn’t offer during a time that fits with a student’s schedule, they can take an online version of the class. That cuts down on costs at high schools because they don’t need additional instructors to teach those courses or sections.
And they’re very popular. Last year, 1,381 students – 20 percent of the class of 2016 cohort – completed an online version of the courses they needed to graduate. Districtwide, nearly 3,200 high school students took an online class last year. Exactly 83 percent of them passed.
Online courses are so popular, in fact, that thousands of students have left the school district in recent years en route to the Charter School of San Diego and other charter schools that offer flexible, online programs. Charter School of San Diego uses Edgenuity for its online courses, too.
And students who opt into charter schools get even more flexibility. They find online courses similar to the kind they took at district schools – but they only have to physically go to school once or twice a week. That’s because these charters offer independent study programs tailored to students’ schedules.
But neither are charter schools immune from cheating. Lindsay Reese, principal of Diego Hills charter school in Rolando Park, said staff members at her school have taken steps to curb cheating.
Diego Hills doesn’t use Edgenuity, but offers a similar program. After her staff witnessed students’ attempts to cheat online, the school cut down on the online components of the course, using them instead to supplement the work students do in person, with teachers.
“There’s so many ways students can cheat these courses,” Reese said. “It’s not just cheating by Googling answers. We discovered that students pay each other to complete their work. So now, even if students are taking an online class, they have to take quizzes and tests in front of a teacher,” she said.
Reese expressed concern that school districts are asking instructors to monitor student progress even if they’ve never actually met students face-to-face.
“I had a student who turned in a beautiful work sample. Everything was right, and the summaries were great. But I know this kid. He doesn’t talk like that. So I asked him if he cheated, and he admitted to it. We threw it in the trash and started over. Knowing your students is really the only way to tell if they’re cheating, and you’re not going to get that from an instructor who’s teaching the class by remote control,” Reese said.
Reese says that online classes could be good for certain students, but believes San Diego Unified has a responsibility to monitor whether the coursework is valid. But because the district benefits from a high graduation rate, she questions officials’ motivation to do that.
“I have to believe that there’s a little bit of complicity on the district’s part,” she said “You’re telling me that none of them are aware this cheating is happening?”
The lack of accountability is part of what first raised red flags for Jeremy Noonan, a teacher who was asked to monitor students taking online classes at his school in Georgia.
Noonan, too, saw students using Google to shortcut Edgenuity courses. One day, he told me, when he told his students he was going to shut down Google and other search engines so students couldn’t look up answers, they told him: “You can’t do that! Then we’re not going to be able to cheat anymore!”
Noonan took his concerns to the school principal, district officials, and later presented his findings to the school board. Even then, he said, district officials were slow to make meaningful changes.
Noonan believes it’s because school districts care more about boosting their own graduation rates than they do about students learning.
“Essentially what we have is widespread fraud in public school systems and the people who are benefiting from it are the people who are in charge of public school systems,” he said. “There’s something about the culture of our public school system where this … is rationalized and promoted. And it’s a national shame.”