Former teacher says some virtual courses invite cheating

(The Center Square) – When government officials and school leaders closed classrooms because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many students switched to virtual learning. Some schools, however, have…

(The Center Square) – When government officials and school leaders closed classrooms because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many students switched to virtual learning. Some schools, however, have continued to utilize virtual options for students, including courseware that critics say allows students to cheat.

A former Atlanta-area public school teacher wrote last month in an op-ed that course assessments from ed-tech company Edmentum could be gamed using search engines, allowing students to receive credit by cheating at home. 

In an emailed statement to Chalkboard, Edmentum said its products are offered at over 6,200 public school districts nationwide, some of which relied on its online courseware services during the pandemic-related school closures.

Jeremy Noonan, a former teacher at Paulding County School District in Dallas, Georgia, wrote last month in an op-ed for the Fordham Institute that he personally saw indications students were gaming answers on Edmentum’s online credit recovery courseware.

In a video uploaded to Vimeo, Noonan says he observed how students working on credit recovery courses at home could use Google or other search engines to copy assessment questions and quickly find the answers. 

Noonan demonstrates in the video how students could go through course material quickly, citing an example of a student completing a 33-question Algebra pretest in under 18 minutes while getting a 97% on the assessment. That same student completed the entire math course in about 15 hours. 

Noonan describes in the video how answers appear on Google or other websites simply by searching the text of the question. Noonan says he discovered the loophole after seeing a student cheat in class. 

Noonan said when he told Paulding administrators about Edmentum’s alleged vulnerabilities, they responded that they supported allowing students to take tests at home and that they can monitor the tests and deal with cheating.

Noonan described the problems with the assessments as a systemic issue and a way for school administrators to boost the school district’s graduation rates by not cracking down on it. 

“Not knowing what they’re doing is the problem,” Noonan said. “You have a professional, moral obligation to make sure they’re doing it legitimately.”

The school district disagreed with Noonan’s claims and says cheating incidents are uncommon for the relatively small number of fully virtual students. A spokesperson for the school district said Noonan cherry-picked information about specific students and their online class performance. 

“The Paulding County School District supports the value of online learning in specific applications, such as the Paulding Virtual Academy and online Credit Recovery courses, for a relatively small population of students,” a spokesperson said. 

“While cheating certainly happens, it is not epidemic in Paulding County schools, and it arguably is no worse today than it has ever been,” the district spokesperson continued. 

A brochure from the district’s Alternative Learning for Academic Success Program, housed within the New Hope Education Center, acknowledges – and prohibits students from utilizing – the very loopholes pointed out by Noonan.

“Participants are expected to perform all work on their own,” the brochure reads. “‘Googling’ answers is not acceptable.”

Edmentum said its coursework and tests are vetted by outside entities.

“Our programs meet rigorous state and third-party agency approvals, ensuring the quality of our curriculum and assessments,” an Edmentum spokesperson told Chalkboard. “The online Credit Recovery model used by the district referenced is the same as the state Department of Education’s Georgia Virtual Academy, and many other school systems across the state.”

Online credit recovery allows students who have previously failed required classes to make them up at home. This allows students to graduate on time, but researchers have found evidence that online credit recovery programs do not increase student learning.

Several school districts Chalkboard spoke with that use Edmentum said they do not allow students to take assessments virtually so they can be monitored better.

Carolyn Heinrich, a professor of public policy, education and economics in the Peabody College of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University, told Chalkboard that what Noonan says occurred at Paulding County School District is not surprising to her.

Heinrich said online credit recovery systems are prevalent in all 50 states and used heavily in the largest school districts. From 2014 to 2020, Heinrich said the use of these credit recovery systems has increased, especially for students who are failing courses.

In most cases, she says, a student’s failing grade is replaced with a new grade. Students are grouped together in computer labs with someone monitoring from the front of the room while students work at terminals. 

Heinrich said she has personally observed students doing everything except work on their courses in hundreds of classroom settings on school campuses.

For example, she said students would plug their headphones into their phones and listen to music during video lectures.

They also observed students copying and pasting test questions into a search engine or looking up answers on Wikipedia, according to her published work.

“When Jeremy reached out to me and said what he was seeing, I said, ‘Well, yeah, it’s in our published papers. We talk about what we were seeing,'” Heinrich said. “I’m not surprised.”

When asked about how districts monitor students, Heinrich said students are great at evading detection and schools are strapped for personnel to keep an eye out. 

Noonan, who resigned from the district earlier this year over his concerns, claims that what administrators allow students to do is “the opposite of an education.”

“What hit my heart, what makes it a big problem, is that the administrators are cheating, but they’re getting the kids to do it,” Noonan said.