Accountability Opinion

Academic Fraud: Does Anyone Care?

By Diane Ravitch — June 12, 2012 4 min read
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Dear Deborah,

Hundreds of millions of dollars in federal and state funds are now being spent to build so-called data warehouses to track students from their earliest years through postsecondary education. Standardized test scores are a key feature of the tracking systems, especially when they are attributed to individual teachers. In time, enthusiasts of the data-is-great school of thought believe we will have the information we need to identify “effective” teachers and make sure that there is an effective teacher in every classroom. With the data comes a tight focus on targets: higher test scores and higher graduation rates.

As the pressure to reach the targets get tougher, many districts are devising ways to raise their graduation rates that have nothing to do with thinking and learning. A prime suspect is credit recovery. I became suspicious when I first learned about credit recovery several years ago. That is when I discovered that some high schools were allowing students who had failed a course to obtain full credit by submitting an essay or a project that was written without any oversight or attending a workshop for several days.

It turns out that the academic fraud goes even deeper than I suspected.

I received a series of emails from someone who works for a major national organization and who reviews the validity of course credits. This person was disturbed by what she learned. She sent me screen shots of course content and assessments that online programs now use to award high school credit. I do not know this individual, but our email exchange persuaded me that she is legitimate, and the information is genuine.

The screen shots showed material used by two kinds of corporations: Some material comes from online credit-recovery courses sold to traditional public schools to help them raise their graduation rates. Other material comes from courses offered by a major for-profit organization that owns online charter schools.

Now, there may be some online courses that are genuinely beneficial. I grant that.

But what I saw, and what I understand has now become common practice, is academic fraud. I saw course credit awarded for “courses” that may be completed in as little as three hours. Three hours of test-taking to get credit for a full semester or even a year! I saw assessments that consisted exclusively of simplistic multiple-choice or true-false questions. I saw responses of dubious value that were “graded” by machines. The level of difficulty of these exams is shockingly low.

But this fraud works. It is profitable. It is a win-win: The student gets credit, the corporation makes money, the school raises its graduation rate, the city leaders celebrate, and the media reports the good news. And the graduation rate means nothing, and the students get an empty “education.”

What is going on has nothing to do with learning. It has nothing to do with preparing for the responsibilities of citizenship. It has nothing to do with the goals and substance of a good education. The students who get these phony credits will require remedial courses if they decide to go to a two-year (or four-year) college.

Imagine this: A student fails algebra. He takes an online credit-recovery course. On the very first set of questions, he answers 70 percent of the questions correctly because the questions are so low level that even someone who failed algebra can guess the right answer. The student then goes on to take a series of “exams” and to get more and more right answers. If he guesses the wrong answer, he can take the “exam” again and get the right answer! Eventually, maybe in a few days, he scores 100 percent. What a triumph.

In some of the online courses, the student can skip the canned instruction and go right to the assessment and start the guessing process immediately. The student can guess the wrong answer, keep guessing until he gets it right, and eventually get credit for a correct answer. In this case, “try, try again” means “guess, guess again,” and you will pass the course with flying colors.

The questions I saw for juniors and seniors were of a pathetically low academic level. A student who failed junior year in English might be able to pass in a matter of hours or days by answering a simple multiple-choice question. Or guessing wrong answers until he got the right answer. One online assessment asked students to “describe a brief encounter that you have experienced in the last month and explain whether it made you feel good or bad.” Anything the student answered, even sentence fragments, received full credit. The answers are machine graded, and the scoring machine makes no distinction between good and poor responses.

I have 12 pages of questions and answers, of scoring tables, of screen shots showing that the student answered incorrectly and was allowed to keep answering until he got it right.

This is academic fraud. These students are not getting an education. They are going through an exercise to pretend that they got an education so that they can graduate. The district will boast that its graduation rate is going up and up. Media figures will say that “education reform” is working. Big-name officials will exchange high-fives. And many thousands of young people will get a diploma that signifies nothing. If they are lucky, they will get remediation when they enter college. If they are unlucky, they will join the ranks of the unemployed and the underemployed and wonder why their education did so little to prepare them for the challenges of life.

Does anyone care?


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