Graduation rates play a big role in school ratings.
Now there is some concern that the pressure to get those rates up is prompting some schools to cut corners on kids' education.
The I-Team has uncovered evidence that teachers at high schools in Pinellas County are giving some students a pass, but the school district has a surprising explanation.
GradPoint is the credit recovery program that the district uses, certifying 140 teachers in Pinellas County’s traditional high school in the program.
For this academic year, the district purchased 750 licenses at a cost of $276,750.
GradPoint is supposed to help students who are falling behind catch up and graduate.
Some students and teachers say the program is being used to give students grades they didn't earn.
The district admits there have been issues with the integrity of the program at the school level, but they say questionable grades never appeared on transcripts and were never forwarded to the state.
“All those schools have found out that this is an easy way to help those students to pass a class, but it's not a valid way to help them to pass a class,” said a Pinellas County high school teacher, who asked us not to identify her, because she fears retaliation.
She says she witnessed abuse of GradPoint at her school.
“Students completed the entire year’s work within days. Sometimes as little as two days, receiving an A or a B,” she said.
The I-Team obtained records showing a student completed 45 journalism lessons in five days, earning a 98 score for the course.
“One day is approximately 50 minutes in class. So that would be one lesson every 5 or 10 minutes. There's no way you could even read the information in that period of time,” the teacher said.
“It would be possible. I'm not saying that all of these are valid scores, but we allow students to work at their own pace,” said Pinellas County Schools Spokesperson Lisa Wolf.
She doubts the scores are valid, because she says the district found evidence last year that numerous fictitious GradPoint accounts and exams were being created and submitted at the school level.
“We've seen this in a small number of schools,” she said.
Wolf says the problem surfaced because multiple people at each school level were allowed to use the same username and password.
She said this error was discovered and all invalid scores were not submitted to the state for inclusion on a student’s transcript.
Wolf said the district believes a large number of the documents we provided to the district showing irregularities were invalid.
The I-Team contacted GradPoint’s vendor, Pearson Education.
Michael Wilmeth, Senior Product Director for GradPoint issued the following statement:
Customers are instructed on how to best use the program. This includes directions for maintaining academic integrity by way of assigning usernames, passwords for individual users as well as assigning permissions for those in various “roles” – for example a teacher “role” has permission / the ability to assign grades. As I mentioned above, Gradpoint requires users to login with a username and password. Like most hosted online solutions, sharing username and password information jeopardizes security. We instruct customers to provide each user with unique usernames and passwords.
“It's the first year we were using the system and so we anticipated discovering some things that we needed to address, and thankfully we have,” said Wolf.
She could not tell us how many GradPoint scores had been invalidated, or exactly when the problem was detected.
One document the I-Team received shows teacher modified a student's score, giving 80's on consecutive tests.
80 is the lowest score students can receive and still get GradPoint credit.
That number shows up repeatedly in documents showing students were given GradPoint credit.
“I would say that there's no way that that could actually happen,” said the teacher we interviewed.
“That is definitely something that would raise a red flag with us. And so those are the type of instances that we're reviewing,” said Wolf.
Documents we received show grades repeatedly modifying scores from failing numbers… 26, 50 and 73… to “80”… often within minutes of tests being submitted.
“If a teacher chooses to modify a grade and thinks it's in the best interest of the student, we allow for that,” said Wolf, who said additional documentation must accompany modified scores, such as written reasons for the grades to be changed.
Wolf said that the teacher to whom each student is assigned in responsible for approving GradPoint credit, which she believes did not happen in the examples we were provided.
Wolf said even though students have to fail classes to be allowed to take GradPoint, they can skip instructional lessons provided through the program if they can pass pre-tests and post-tests in those subjects.
“If they can show mastery of the concept, they're allowed to move on with their coursework,” she said.
The number of GradPoint credits given to Pinellas County Schools students increased 59 percent, comparing the number of credits given during the first semester of the 2013-2014 school year to the first semester of the 2014-2015 school year.
At Clearwater High, the number quadrupled from one year to the next., from 98 to 397 credits during that time period.
That helped Clearwater's graduation rate increase from 73 percent in 2011 to 87 percent last year.
At Boca Ciega High School, the number of GradPoint participants doubled from one year to the next.
The graduation there has increased from 62 percent in 2011 to 89 percent last year.
“Many schools are doing the same thing, because they want their rates to look good. So they get funding. But it's just a total scam,” the teacher said.
Wolf says that since the beginning of the 2015-2016 academic year, unique usernames and passwords are now issued to teachers and students, so that the district can pinpoint exactly where any future problems are coming from.
She says she does not believe that the questionable scores detected on the school level would affect anyone’s degree.
After our story first ran, we received this follow-up statement from GradPoint:
GradPoint is an online learning product for schools that relies on both technology and the teacher for successful implementation. The GradPoint product does not manipulate grades. We have made ourselves available to Pinellas to help them resolve any issues they may have with implementation.
If you have information about GradPoint you’d like to share, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org