During six years as a math teacher in Littleton, Colo., Peter Jonnard created a huge bank of questions only he knew the answers to so that students could no longer cheat on the online credit recovery tests they needed to graduate from high school.
Only 40 percent of his students passed his cheat-proof exams, he said. The passing rate for other students, who could game the system to get the answers, was about 80 percent, he said.
Ayde Rosas Davis, a high school math teacher in Del Rio, Tex., had it even worse. When she saw other teachers routinely giving students the answers to credit recovery test questions, she complained to her supervisor, her superintendent, her school board and the Texas Education Agency (TEA).
Two years later, there has been no progress, Davis said. In April, the TEA denied her complaint. The school district’s attorney, Robert A. Schulman, told me it “strongly promotes academic integrity and does not condone cheating in any form or context.”
But Gene Acuna, spokesman for the TEA, said “TEA does not have the authority to review/approve curriculum programs.” The agency instead concluded that the district had taken steps to correct the situation, so it closed the complaint without revealing what was done. Davis said she was never interviewed by the agency.
The district did not comment on its graduation rate soaring from 69 percent in 2007 to 92 percent in 2015 while its students’ college readiness rate remained a dismal 8 percent. District officials also did not respond when I asked if they had checked their credit recovery passing rate as Jonnard did in Littleton. Jonnard’s district had no comment.
Online credit recovery programs are used by 88 percent of U.S. school districts. They give high school credit for just a few weeks (sometimes a few days) of work, with little or no evidence that much is learned. School districts know they have a problem but often look the other way.
I can see why. Allowing students to cheat on the exams has helped raise high school graduation rates to a record 83 percent. In a recent column I suggested we overlook the problem, since restless students who hate high school are just going to drop out if we don’t give them some escape, like credit recovery.
Having thought more about the stories Jonnard, Davis and other teachers are telling me, I see I was wrong. Letting such dishonesty thrive poisons any respect teachers, students and parents have for our schools.
In December 2014, Davis told her supervisor, “I want to teach math, not just give them the answers,” which she said other teachers were doing. Davis, who grew up in Mexico and completed a post-baccalaureate program at Sul Ross State University in Texas to teach high school math, said the supervisor told her “I would not be a successful classroom teacher, because, in her words, I can’t speak proper English.”
Davis said she began to take notes and gather documents. She said she saw credit recovery teachers extracting the correct answers from science tests and reciting them to students. In other classes she saw teachers giving handwritten pages with answers to students.
Davis, who resigned in July after being transferred to an eighth-grade class, and Jonnard, who no longer teaches credit recovery, said they endorse giving students a chance to make up for past failures, as long as they learn more than how to plug in answers they are given or find through manipulating test software.
If credit recovery is too corrupt to save, perhaps schools ought to require something substantial for graduation. How about a 12-page research paper judged by an independent panel that checks for plagiarism? At least students would finish high school having done something challenging.
Telling teachers they can either let students cheat or be transferred out of credit recovery work is not a viable solution to low graduation rates. We don’t want to produce a new generation of high school graduates whose most memorable lesson is that dishonesty brings success.