Educators at an East Oakland high school are accused of falsifying transcripts as part of intricate cheating scandal involving top school administrators, teachers, and at least one guidance counselor. The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit spoke exclusively to three teachers who say failing grades they assigned to students over the past few years were altered just days prior to graduation.
The allegations center around Castlemont High School in East Oakland, where 94 percent of students are classified as “socioeconomically disadvantaged," which means they either have parents or guardians who did not receive a high school diploma or qualify for free or reduced lunch. Students often had no idea their grades were changed, according to teachers.
“We aren't giving them the opportunity to get the education that they deserve,” said one teacher, who spoke to NBC Bay Area under the condition her name not be used. “We're not doing anyone a service by changing grades or allowing students to cheat.”
NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit learned at least two teachers filed formal complaints with the Oakland Unified School District this summer, naming specific staff members and administrators allegedly involved in falsifying student transcripts. A third teacher told NBC Bay Area she reported concerns about cheating to top school officials, but nothing was ever done.
According to teachers who spoke with NBC Bay Area, the falsified transcripts were, in part, an effort to boost graduation rates and mask educational deficiencies within the district. More than 30 percent of Castlemont seniors failed to graduate during the 2017-2018 school year, which is nearly double the statewide average, according to the California Department of Education.
“I noticed that a lot of students were receiving credit for classes that they were never enrolled in or were receiving [passing] grades for online learning that they hadn’t actually completed,” said one of the teachers who filed a formal complaint.
She left the district at the end of last school year and spoke on the condition of anonymity, as she’s currently seeking another teaching job. In a formal complaint filed in July, she accused school officials of falsifying grades for at least eight students last year to make them eligible for graduation.
“It’s not really a surprise to me that the school leadership would be doing something to make graduation rates look better or to kind of boost the public opinion of the school,” the teacher said. “It’s an unfair and biased system that some students end up their 12th-grade year really underserved and underprepared.”
When students fail a class in Oakland, they’re allowed to take an online course to make up missing credits. But teachers say they noticed passing grades appear on some students’ transcripts for online credit recovery courses that were never completed or students were never enrolled in.
Another teacher who spoke to NBC Bay Area on the condition of anonymity because she currently works in another school district said she also witnessed a different kind of cheating. She said at least one of the teachers running credit recovery courses emailed test answers to dozens of students before exams.
“Our teaching practices can now be called into question, our school can now be called into question,” the teacher said. “We’re not doing anyone a service by changing grades or allowing students to cheat.”
The teacher left the district at the end of the 2017-2018 school year. She described the cheating as a symptom of a districtwide problem, where schools are underfunded, and students have a steady stream of new or substitute teachers. She said those issues particularly impact students of color, like nearly every student at Castlemont.
“We’re expecting them to be passing these classes when they haven’t even had that education,” the teacher said. “It’s just been substitutes and worksheets and stuff like that.”
According to the California Department of Education, the average years of service for Castlemont teachers is less than half the state average.
“We’re setting them up to fail. We’re sending them out into society saying that they’ve got this education, when in reality, they don’t.”
NBC Bay Area made several requests to the Oakland Unified School District to interview both the district superintendent and Castlemont’s principal, who took over this year. The district said no officials would be available for an interview.
“We have not found any evidence of wrongdoing, but we are looking,” said John Sasaki, spokesperson for the district. “If we find we do need to tighten up protocols … that’s what we will do.”
On Wednesday, Sasaki told NBC Bay Area the district plans to hire an outside investigator to look into how the district runs the online classes known as “APEX,” which are designed to help students overcome failed courses.
The teachers who spoke to NBC Bay Area said they want to see accountability for any district officials who knew about or facilitated cheating, but that any punitive measures against students would be inappropriate.
“If it’s taking diplomas away from students, I don’t think that’s addressing the issue,” one of the teachers said. “I think having conversations about why this is happening is addressing the issue and talking about what measures are put into place so that we can ensure that quality teachers are going into these schools.”