Virtual Classes, Real Cheating

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Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has been crisscrossing the country over the past year touting the benefits of virtual education for elementary and secondary students—and for cash-strapped state budgets. (I wrote a lengthy story about that enterprise here.) Earlier this month at a summit he convened in San Francisco, his new advocacy group, Digital Learning Now, outlined the steps he thinks states should take to expand digital learning in public schools. Among the requirements are such controversial things as repealing teacher-student ratio requirements or teacher credentialing mandates, as well as letting more for-profit providers have a crack at public school money. He also recommends that states mandate that proficiency tests be taken online or digitally. Bush will be checking up on the states over the next year and “grading” them on how well they follow his recommendations. One thing Bush’s education summit and state report cards don’t address, though, is what states ought to do to prevent cheating in online classes, which has become a chronic problem.

Even as states rush to embrace Bush’s vision of “21st-century learning,” the National Education Policy Center this week released a new policy paper on virtual K-12 education. Researcher Gene Glass and colleagues noted that one of the biggest issues dogging virtual K-12 education is “authenticity of student work.” That cheating would be a problem in classes where there are only computers and no teachers seems sort of obvious. Anyone could be doing the work and taking the tests in those classes, after all. And there’s little to prevent kids from simply Googling their way to an A.

Glass cites a school in Ohio run by K12 Inc., a large for-profit online provider, in which about half the students were discovered not to even own a computer, raising serious questions about how they were completing all the work they’d supposedly done. They also highlight the case of North High School in Denver, which earlier this year was profiled by the alt-weekly Westword in a story that suggested the school was allowing students to cheat on online classes for “credit recovery” that allowed them to graduate and boost the school’s dismal profile.

In 2010, the school’s graduation rate, previously among the worst in the state at 48 percent, soared to 64 percent after the online credit recovery classes had been implemented. But Westword didn’t find that the online classes were just so fabulous that kids embraced them and suddenly succeeded where they’d failed in a regular classroom. Instead, they found multiple instances where the students weren’t doing any of the coursework in the classes at all but were passing their final exams with flying colors.

Former school staffers reported that students were using their iPhones to find the answers to the multiple-choice questions. Others simply took the tests over and over again (which they could do online) until they figured out the right answers through the process of elimination, and then passed the answers on to friends. The company providing the online classes at North High? Apex Learning, one of the major donors to Jeb Bush’s digital-ed lobbying campaign. Is it any wonder Bush doesn’t want to talk about cheating?

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Corrupt leaders the world over can (and will) try to shut down the truth, but when the truth has millions of people on its side, you can't keep it down for good. And there's no more powerful or urgent argument for your support of Mother Jones' journalism right now than that. We need to raise about $450,000 to hit our online fundraising budget in these next few months, so please read more from Monika and pitch in if you can.

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