HOUSTON -- Instead of learning and earning their diplomas, some Houston high school students say the district got them to their cap and gown, through a program that’s easy to pass, and easy to cheat.
"You don't have to do the work, you can put it on another student, you can pay another student to finish the work, and the teacher will never know,” said a recent graduate from Booker T. Washington High School who asked not to be identified.
Why won't teachers know? Because the Houston Independent School District allows students to take quizzes, and even some tests, on their own---online---just a finger click away from an internet full of answers.
"You're not learning anything except how to Google stuff online," said another Washington High School graduate.
The program is called Grab Lab and it lets students retake courses they've previously failed. HISD Superintendent Terry Grier launched it to rescue kids from dropping out.
But critics say there may be another reason for the program’s existence.
“In reality, it's just a way of getting those stats higher, the percentage of kids graduating higher,” said Dr. Bob Sanborn.
Sanborn is an education watchdog who runs the research and advocacy non-profit “Children at Risk”. His fear is that HISD is speeding kids through coursework to artificially boost its graduation rate -- a vital factor in how the State of Texas rates school districts each year.
"There's a lot of pressure on our school districts to say ‘how do we get those numbers up,’" Sanborn said.
That numbers game, Sanborn said, comes with a cost.
"We have a student who maybe really hasn't learned, they've just sort of abused the situation," Sanborn said.
For instance, those take-home quizzes and tests sometimes count for more than half of a student's grade. What's more students get not one, not two, but three chances to pass them. It's no wonder many students say Grad Lab is a breeze.
"It's easier I would say," said Louis Martinez, a Reagan High School student.
"It makes you feel good because you finish something in a shorter time than you would have taking an actual class," added student Jasmine Cortes.
And in some cases HISD allows seniors to finish in record time. How? By taking only one section of a course online then skipping the rest, and whizzing straight on to the final exam and diploma.
And that's something that other major school districts just don't do--not in Los Angeles or Boston, which both use the same online curriculum.
“Every student is enrolled in the full course and there is no testing out,” Boston Public Schools Spokesperson Lee McGuire.
“The guidelines developed under Credit Recovery require students to take all course lessons and units,” McGuire said.
"I think the grad lab was kind of a cheap way to graduate high school," said the Washington High School graduate.
But while some students call it cheap and easy, HISD sees it differently.
“I've stood there on graduation day with kids with tears in their eyes saying ‘If it had not been for this program, I wouldn't be standing here,’" said Regina Johnson.
Regina Johnson is a Grad Lab “coach" at HISD’s Reagan High School and a true believer in the program.
So we asked -
I-Team: “You don't really know if they're doing the work or not.”
Johnson: “Yes, because I'm checking here to make sure they're doing it because I'm constantly monitoring.”
I-Team: “You just said they can do this stuff at home.”
Johnson: “They can do some of this at home but I'm looking over their shoulder to make sure…”
I-Team: “You're not looking over their shoulders at home. Does this system lend itself to gaming the system, to cheating the system?”
Johnson: “Just like any other system.”
Meanwhile, HISD Spokesperson Jason Spencer pointed out that all Grad Lab final exams must be taken live at school, with a proctor present and no access to the Internet. But the I-Team confirmed in some courses, the final test counts for as little as 10% of the total grade. The result is a student can flunk the final, but still pass the course with good scores on the other take-home quizzes and tests.