The online courses San Diego Unified has used to boost its graduation rate are shockingly easy to cheat, and students at schools across the district are taking advantage.

The online courses enabled students like Fernando Saucedo, a senior at Hoover High, to make up credits he previously failed – sometimes in a matter of days or weeks. But Saucedo said he and everyone he knows who’s taken an online course understands that finding answers to test and quiz questions is as simple as opening a second computer browser and looking up answers in real time.

“The online courses basically save you from not graduating, so I like them. But I don’t think they’re an effective way to learn. We all know we can find all the answers online and everyone looks them up,” said Saucedo, who’s taken three online credit-recovery courses at Hoover.

Saucedo’s story is a familiar one. I recently visited East Village High School, where students openly demonstrated for me how easy the courses are to game.

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 nonsense where short answers were supposed to go and watched as the computer marked the answer as complete. One student stored screenshots of test questions on her cell phone because she said the same questions often appear on second and third attempts to pass tests.

A district spokesman didn’t deny to the San Diego Union-Tribune that online courses could be easily cheated, but told the paper that claims that cheating occurs were merely “anecdotal.”

Since then, more teachers and students have come forward to share their experiences with cheating and online courses.

Elizabeth Ahlgren worked at Morse High before she recently retired.

“I retired after teaching for 39 years. I taught struggling math students during the last three years along with second year algebra. The cheating was too much for me to tolerate so I retired. It’s worse than you think. Nearly all high school students have smart phones. They google the questions on their phones as they take a quiz or test,” she wrote in an email.

Ahlgren pointed out that online classes aren’t new to the district. 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.

Before that, the district used online classes that were developed by Apex, a company that offered similar classes that teachers say were also easy to cheat. When the district switched to Edgenuity, teachers hoped the new software would make it easier to stop the cheating. That hasn’t happened.

Ahlgren said the problem boils down to school districts prioritizing high graduation rates over actual learning.

“We have piled on more requirements for students and then we label the school as failing when the kids fail their classes. The national testing hysteria has caused districts to increase graduation requirements to the point where we have created an untenable situation for our students.”

The district’s press office did not respond to questions about whether San Diego Unified officials are investigating claims of cheating and did not say when district leaders first became aware of the complaints.

But an email obtained by VOSD shows that teachers at Patrick Henry High in San Carlos are aware of how easy the courses are to shortcut.

Courses are officially taught by educators at iHigh Virtual Academy, the district’s headquarters for online learning. 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.

Elizabeth Bayless Humphrey, who works as a grad coach at Patrick Henry, explained in an email to her colleagues why it’s difficult to curb the problem:

“Cheating during online learning is an issue for a variety of reasons: availability of cheating software has increased and also student [sic] can work privately at home. Colleges sometimes contract with a proctoring software that helps. It video records the student’s actions and also what is on their screens. This is very expensive!

With our own iHigh/Edgenuity courses, the only time students are required to be ‘proctored’ on site are for the midterm and final cumulative exams. At the time of proctoring they are monitored and will receive a zero if they are seen talking, using a phone, or opening up any other windows on their screen. The company that our district uses (Edgenuity) also updates their course content periodically and tries to create test questions that are unique. In a classroom setting, as student learning needs become more apparent to the teacher, excessively high scores for a particular student might become suspicious and lead to follow up.”

Humphrey also wrote that it’s possible for teachers to catch students cheating if they circulate through the classroom and monitor students while they take tests. But, as Humphrey points out, students only have to complete two exams in the presence of teachers. Other quizzes and tests can be completed from home – away from the prying eyes of teachers.

For San Diego Unified, that flexibility is also one of online courses’ biggest selling points. In an explanation of how the district reached its record-setting 2016 graduation rate, officials gave credit in no small part to 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% 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.”

By Saucedo’s account, the presence of a teacher who monitors students as they take online classes isn’t enough to make the coursework meaningful. Saucedo said he failed the first online course he took because he procrastinated and fell behind.

“Basically there are no teachers, so I didn’t feel pressure,” he said. “I just procrastinated and goofed off with my phone the whole time. There’s a monitor who’s in that class, and he would tell us to get on top of our work. But most of us didn’t care what he had to say.”

Scant research exists to show online courses are actually an effective way for students to learn – an important question, especially for students who are retaking classes to recover credits they previously missed.

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.

If students are taking online courses for first-time credit, they have to sit through the whole course, which as a general rule of thumb takes roughly 60 hours – or an hour a day for 12 weeks – to complete, a district spokesperson said last year.

Students retaking classes they previously failed, however, often need much less time. That’s because students are given a pretest before they begin coursework. If students get at least seven out of 10 answers correct on pretests, they can skip over that section of the course. There’s no point in making students sit through a semester-long course if they only struggled on a few specific concepts, the thinking goes.

The problem, teachers say, is that students can Google answers in real time as they take the pretests, too. That’s how some students say they’re able to knock out those credits in a matter of days.

Stacy Williams, who teaches at TRACE – an alternative San Diego Unified school geared toward 18- to 22-year-olds with disabilities – is also concerned about cheating. But that’s not all.

She said in the past, more students attended TRACE until they were 22, and took those years to learn vocation and life skills that would help them live independently. Now more students are using online courses to earn a diploma and leave school earlier, she said.

More concerning yet for Williams is that teachers whose students quickly pass online courses and graduate are earning praise from administrators, regardless of how well-prepared students are to leave.

She knows of one student who failed two semesters of a regular course. But when that same student took the online version of the course, he finished within weeks and earned a B, she said.

“Some of these kids are reading at fourth grade and below and yet are leaving the district with a diploma,” Williams said. “I think some teachers believe they’re doing the student favors by passing them through. They might feel sorry for them, or worry that without a diploma, the student will be held back in life. But in the long run, this really hurts them.”

Williams believes the issue comes back to a systemic problem wherein the only measure of success valued by school districts is a diploma. Instead of helping the students learn academic content and skills that will help them later in life, the school district is encouraging students to take an easier, faster route.

Williams said that when she first learned how she was supposed to support and monitor students taking online courses, a colleague recommended she look at students’ answers before they submit quizzes and tell students which answers they need to change in order to get a passing grade.

The district said last week it doesn’t advise teachers to give out answers to quiz or test questions, but didn’t comment as to whether it’s within the rules for teachers to tell students which questions they got wrong.

In other school districts where problems with cheating in online courses have been noted, principals openly advised teachers to do this, a practice known as providing “answer checks.”

For Williams, it all adds up to the school district offering diplomas with questionable value.

“I feel it’s unfair to deceive our students to think that by giving them these credits that they will go on to college and be successful,” she said. “We as a district are not preparing students for the real world by providing ‘fake’ diplomas.”

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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