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.”

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

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.”

    This article relates to: Education, Graduation Rates

    Written by Mario Koran

    Mario is an investigative reporter focused on immigration, border and related criminal justice issues. Reach him directly at 619.325.0531, or by email:

    John H Borja
    John H Borja subscriber

    Let me continue, Mario. This is much ado about nearly nothing.

    Online cheating? Really? This is about showing up! How many kids simply blow the whole thing off and "move on". The kids doing this "credit recovery" may be waking up to some basic realities. And, the school is there to provide 2nd, 3rd, 4th chances before these kids have to "hit" the reality train. What do you, Mario, want to do? Penalize the kids? Ok. If cheating goes on in real tests like the SAT, the ACT, that ridiculous Baccalaureate thing, then, maybe, ok. Then, how can you say the written essays submitted didn't go through a parental washing, a neighbor's washing, and finally(the rinse) a professional's washing to be acceptable to a "college board"? No. This whole on-line cheating thing was reviewed by Shakespeare many centuries ago: "Much ado about nothing". 

      Schools are in the business of providing the means to an end. And, it is a very short end. Children who want to tap dance to fame should have their "shot". Why would a high school put their foot in front of the door to stop them? Are all students in high school on the train to doctor of pediatric neurology at Johns Hopkins? Excuse me? No! Each child is attempting to locate their path on their vision, on their passion. 

       Nothing in the "make-up" online "thing" should prevent them from realizing their potential. High school is not a prison.

    Joe Jones
    Joe Jones subscriber

    @John H Borja  What a novel concept. The billions spent on education in California is "about showing up." Beyond this drivel, I suggest a child attempting to "locate their path on their vision" (sic) might wish to learn rudimentary English. That skill could certainly help you, should your tap dancing career end somewhat short of Broadway.

    John H Borja
    John H Borja subscriber

    As usual, Mario, you totally miss the point. The point is learning. The proof of what the students did will be quickly seen in the pudding. Children know what they are doing. They just want to get the thing done. They know that if they do not master certain skills to move into college, they will fail....anyway. Second chances. 

    Alternative schools, charter, vouchers, whatever actually hurt children in quick fashion. What is required to succeed hasn't changed for decades. Children can't be fooled. They know. The USSF online test for referees, as compared to the physical multiple "guess tests" at some physical venue is a joke. The proof of your expertise is ref-ing a match. Parents, coaches, and players will move you off the field if you don't ref correctly. And, that is the same with transferring credits from high school or two year college to a full fledged university.

      The kids know they will not be "good enough" to succeed unless they have an underlying understanding of the concepts tested. 

    Cheating? Cheating? Hmm. The system, testing, the course presented is not the point of focus. The focus is on the concrete understanding. It is here that an online course actually fails. It is here where charters, vouchers, and private schools lie. 

        And, do you know what? Children know. They are intuitive. Who is o.t.l.?(out to lunch) The parents. Whatever canvas you want to paint, the proof is in the pudding. Kids get that. 

    There is no way around basic and concrete skill. And, kids know this. This is what you and Betsy DeVos do not understand.

    espanolmatt subscriber

    I don't fully understand why you are comparing Mario to Betsy Devos. But the problem is with the set up and format of these online classes. Perhaps there's no substitute for a real teacher. My takeaway is Egenuity has got to go. Kids deserve better. It's like the district gives kids this crappy program that they know will let kids google answers, but they let it happen because it increases their graduation rates. Why do you think Charter School of San Diego uses Edgenuity too?

    John H Borja
    John H Borja subscriber

    @espanolmatt You and the rest of the respondents today don't "get it". It's not about the app or the program or the "online curriculum". It's about closure. Kids know they will need more. They know they will need to take courses to support what they didn't "get" in high school. It's about human development and awareness. Mario and Betsy DeVos are feeding on the inadequacies of the school system. When, the real issue is the awakening of the children. Some kids need time to get with the program. Most kids, really, do the thing and get on with their lives.

    espanolmatt subscriber

    I don't mean this offensively, but I don't understand what you're saying. You mention the issue is closure, kids knowing they'll need more classes, the issue then being awakening of children, and kids also doing the thing. None of these are concrete ideas. They are vague and unintelligible. At least that's what I would write if a student turned that in in my class. Could you please clarify?

    Molly Cook
    Molly Cook

    Technology is a two-edged sword and one of those edges is destroying much of the integrity that once existed in our lives.  But it's not just the young students who are to blame.  For supposedly savvy adults - teachers and administrators - to believe that these online courses would somehow NOT involve cheating is inexcusable.  And to call what happens with them by "graduating" these cheating students a success is beyond belief.  That so many teachers came forward to talk about their own experiences tells the real story here. 

    Using this method of "teaching" we are not producing educated young people, but an entire generation of lying, cheating dummies.  Of course, they have a lot of leaders as role models these days. 

    John H Borja
    John H Borja subscriber

    @Molly Cook This is exclusively about time and second chances. The kids on "go" were on "go" by the ninth grade.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    By now, shouldn't SDUSD be getting blowback from universities who enroll these faux graduates 

    espanolmatt subscriber

    And from WASC. Wonder if they've gotten wind. When is iHigh up for accreditation?

    John H Borja
    John H Borja subscriber

    @Bill Bradshaw The universities can distinguish between the real candidates and the "faux" graduates. 

    These kids don't make it passed the first quarter/semester. 

    Kelly Donivan
    Kelly Donivan subscriber

    @espanolmatt Good point!  I wonder if WASC is on to this method of "teaching."  The sad part about WASC is that they often only receive information from administration and not enough from teachers.  The few days that a WASC committee is actually on campus is really not enough to see what is happening.  Much of the material they get to review, etc. is often sugar coated by the administration.