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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Accountability Opinion

What’s Wrong With Online Credit Recovery? This Teacher Will Tell You

The pursuit of higher graduation rates can lead to harmful outcomes
By Rick Hess — November 20, 2023 5 min read
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Jeremy Noonan taught in Paulding County, Ga., until he created a video that explained how easy it is for students to cheat their way through online credit recovery (OCR). The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an article that linked to his video and covers the events that followed. As you would expect, Noonan and the school have different accounts of what happened. Without trying to adjudicate that, I thought Noonan’s larger observations and the implications for online credit recovery were worth sharing. In recent years, OCR has played a big role when it comes to helping high schools achieve record-setting graduation rates. At the same time, observers (like Noonan) have raised red flags asking hard questions about whether schools have mostly discovered an easy way to enable unprepared students to graduate. (For a broader look that talks about this topic and mentions Noonan’s concerns, see here.) These questions have only grown more urgent as schools cope with post-pandemic learning loss while increasingly allowing students to do OCR from home. Noonan, who now teaches math at a private school in Atlanta, recently wrote me a thoughtful note on his experience with all of this.

—Rick

After being unexpectedly assigned to oversee my school’s online credit-recovery program in January, I soon discovered that my administrators were allowing six seniors to take their courses, including exams, entirely at home—unsupervised—so that they could graduate “on time.” When I said that I would not enable them to cheat by unlocking the students’ exams on the online platform, the students were promptly removed from my roster. When I saw how these students, and previous students who had done the courses at home, were acing exams in an impossibly small amount of time, in contrast to my on-campus students who usually failed the exams, I offered to proctor their exams on campus after school. When this was refused by my principal and my appeals up the chain of command were denied, I made a video showing how easily students could cheat (by Googling answers using actual students’ tests) to bring public attention to the problem.

I was no stranger to the widespread abuse of online credit recovery to inflate graduation rates. After witnessing firsthand how easily these courses could be gamed in 2016, I helped spotlight the issue for nearly three years.

While providing students opportunities to recover credits is essential to the worthy goal of getting more students to graduate, schools’ need to accomplish this efficiently has led administrators to turn to cheap online courses (mainly supplied by global, for-profit companies) that have proved harmful to student learning and future earnings and have been shown to be easily gameable.

Although my attempts to bring accountability to my district from external authorities proved dishearteningly futile, such accountability would not be necessary if administrators responsibly self-regulated according to basic ethical standards. A few anecdotes of real encounters I had with administrators and counselors in the course of confronting the online cheating problem may be instructive.

My principal declined my offer to proctor students’ exams on campus after school on the grounds that he was following a “district norm” and that the state department of education “permitted” this. Indeed, the only time the administration reminded faculty of our ethical obligations to ensure the integrity of assessment results was during training for proctoring the state’s end-of-course exams. The administrator conducting the training noted that most violations are due to “failures to prevent cheating” and said we had an obligation to be “vigilant and proactive” to “ensure students cannot cheat.” Yet administrators did not adhere to this standard when it came to their local online assessments because no outside authorities had established rules for these, and thus they had no fear of consequences from the state.

What prevails day to day is a utilitarian mindset that the ends justify the means. Gaming graduation rates by lowering standards is rationalized by appeals to the economic benefits linked to having a diploma. When I discovered that one of my on-campus credit-recovery students, a senior, was illiterate, I told his guidance counselor that, while I was happy to help him learn how to read, I could not authorize him earning a senior-level literature credit for getting to a 2nd grade reading level. She made a sentimental appeal: “It sure would do him good to get that diploma. Shaw Industries [a nearby carpet manufacturer] pays $25 an hour.” Then, suddenly, the folly of her position dawned on her, and she added: “But he’d probably have to take an IQ test to work there, and he wouldn’t be able to read it.”

The “whatever it takes” approach to increasing graduation rates is destroying the very ends used to justify the means by deflating the value of a diploma. The economic benefit of a diploma depends on trust in what the diploma represents: knowledge, abilities, and other qualities that have actual value. When schools take shortcuts to drag more students across the finish line, they violate this trust. Eventually, the public catches on, and the diploma gradually loses its value—forcing students to chase more and more expensive credentials.

This self-defeating game can only be exposed and corrected when there is a culture of open discourse in a school system and where staff feel safe raising moral concerns. Since this egregious situation, authorized by administrators but carried out by teachers and counselors, had been in place for three years, I wondered if I was the first one to raise such concerns, so I asked my principal. Even though he shared my unease, he said he never heard a complaint from his inferiors, never expressed them to his superiors, and never discussed the matter with his fellow principals. He made sure I knew, though, that a rival high school had many more students taking courses at home than our school did!

Authorities establish regulations in response to failures, and certainly there should be a way to hold administrators accountable for using dubious means to inflate graduation rates. But the solution to such problems must foremost be a cultural one—a correction of the root beliefs and values that produce the rotten fruit of graduation-rate gaming. This can only happen when open conversations occur among administrators, teachers, and counselors. But there is something about our current outcomes-based accountability system that stifles this kind of discourse. What would an accountability system look like that would promote school cultures where teachers feel empowered to raise these concerns and administrators have the incentives to listen?

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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