Schools' Online Credit Recovery Courses Under Scrutiny

Most U.S. school districts offer online credit recovery courses for their students. But the rigor and effectiveness of these courses remains in doubt.

by / July 10, 2017 0

Imagine the following scenario: During his sophomore year, a high school student failed world history, a course required for graduation. Thankfully, he’s still in school. But without those world history credits, he won’t be receiving a diploma with his classmates.

Now a second-semester junior with graduation in view, he and his mom are growing concerned. So the two arrange a meeting with his school’s guidance counselor to discuss his options. They learn that due to budget cuts, the district no longer offers summer school programs for students to retake failed courses. And since the student’s not enthused about retaking world history with a bunch of sophomores, the counselor explains how the student can fit an online credit recovery course into his schedule. And further, he can advance at his own pace, and potentially finish the course in less than a semester. Student and mom are sold.

With some extra work, the student will join many thousands of other U.S. students taking a similar route to graduation. He’ll get his diploma with his friends, his high school’s graduation rate may increase, and depending on how the school’s credit recovery program is run, he might actually learn some history. But it’s this last point that’s most in question.

Though now adopted in most of our nation’s high schools, the quality and effectiveness of credit recovery programs vary widely. And recent reports reveal just how little state departments of education actually know about their districts’ offerings — which districts offer credit recovery courses, how many students take and pass these courses, and the courses’ overall quality and rigor.

School districts have options for offering credit recovery courses. The easiest and cheapest ones to implement — meaning they’re relatively inexpensive to buy and don’t require proctoring support by certified teachers — are strictly online courses. Districts purchase course licenses, usually from one of the big vendors in this arena: Apex, Edgenuity or K12 Inc., and then enroll students.

The course software typically allows the school to make some administrative choices: Will students be allowed to take basic pre-tests, and then potentially zip through the course without really learning the content? Will assessments require any writing, or will the tests be all multiple choice? Will the students be able to work at home, or must their work be completed in a monitored school computer lab? How many times can a student re-take any given test?

With these options, it’s not hard to see how schools, focused on increasing their graduation rates, could set up credit recovery courses in a way that helps ensure their students’ “success.” And unfortunately, some reports reveal this to be an all-too-common occurrence.

Online magazine Slate, in collaboration with Columbia Journalism School’s Teacher Project, recently published The New Diploma Mills, an eight-part series on school districts’ credit recovery programs. Covering a variety of perspectives, these articles highlight both the promises and pitfalls (though mostly pitfalls, as the title suggests) of online credit recovery courses. 

However, schools can avoid the problems outlined in the series of articles. Using the same vendor-supplied courseware, but adding skilled teachers into the quotient, schools can construct credit recovery programs that recognize and meet the distinct needs of these most at-risk students.

The International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) is focused on helping districts build high-quality online and blended learning programs, and in 2015 they published Using Online Learning for Credit Recovery: Getting Back on Track to Graduation. In this report, iNACOL shares how a blended, competency-based approach that couples teacher-led instruction with online coursework can offer a more promising approach for schools’ credit recovery programs.

A helpful article titled Online Classes for K-12 Schools: What You Need to Know covers the current online course landscape in our schools, and also delves into credit recovery in Education Week’s 2017 Technology Counts edition, Classroom Technology: Where Schools Stand. 

Credit recovery programs address a significant need in our schools. But in exploring their options, school districts should ensure they don’t inadvertently create a tiered diploma structure — one for students who pass traditional courses that are presumably rigorous and led by teachers, and another for students who slide through to graduation via dubious credit recovery programs.    

Kipp Bentley Contributing Writer

Kipp Bentley is a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Education. He has been a classroom teacher, librarian and ed tech director and currently consults, writes and weaves in Santa Fe, N.M.