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Report

Practice outpacing policy? Credit recovery in American school districts

American Enterprise Institute

Key Points

  • Although many reports have raised concerns about the quality of credit recovery programs, little is known about the policies governing these programs.
  • Our research team surveyed 200 school districts across the country about the policies governing their credit recovery programs, including when credit recovery is offered, whether it is administered online, and whether the credit recovery grade students earn replaces their original failing grade.
  • This data collection revealed many districts’ policies allow lots of flexibility for student access and assessment with relatively little constraint. Taken individually, these policies could be justifiable, but taken together, they leave credit recovery programs ripe for abuse.
  • To prevent credit recovery from doing more harm than good, districts need to establish clear policies specifically aimed at ensuring these programs provide quality instruction, not just an easy ticket to graduation.

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Executive Summary

In recent years, many journalistic exposés and research reports have raised concerns about the quality of credit recovery programs, which are avail­able in about 75 percent of US high schools and serve about 6 percent of students. Stories relay how schools from Los Angeles to Washington, DC, have used the system of makeup courses to boost graduation rates, and some have even reported having separate require­ments for student-athletes seeking National Colle­giate Athletic Association scholarships. Among these reports, however, are often lapses in details about the actual district policies governing credit recovery. While a handful of studies have examined the qual­ity of specific programs, it is hard to tell whether they broadly represent credit recovery programs or are instead merely examples of the worst of them.

The purpose of this report is to take a closer look at credit recovery policies in American public school dis­tricts across the country. Our research team contacted a nationally representative sample of 200 districts that had high participation rates of credit recovery in the spring and summer of 2019 and asked questions about the policies governing their credit recovery pro­grams—including when credit recovery is offered, whether it is administered online, and whether the credit recovery grade students earn replaces their original failing grade.

This data collection, which yielded an 84 percent response rate, found that 95 percent of responding districts offer credit recovery online and 87 percent offer it year-round. Over half (54 percent) do not require failing grades to participate, and 51 percent replace the original grade with the credit recovery grade. Moreover, 68 percent of responding districts do not have seat-time requirements, and 61 percent allow students to skip lessons by taking pretests, thus allowing students to complete credit recovery courses at their own pace.

Taken individually, these policies could be justifi­able for certain districts’ circumstances and needs. Taken together, however, the pattern of highly expan­sive and flexible district policies offers little comfort about the rigor of credit recovery. To prevent credit recovery from doing more harm than good, districts need to establish clear policies focused on increasing rigor rather than just flexibility. By taking a stronger stand on rigorous credit recovery policies, districts have a better chance of ensuring these programs provide quality instruction, not just an easy ticket to graduation.

Introduction

After a decade of education policy heavily focused on college and career readiness and boosting postsecondary enrollment, the primary approaches to gauging high school quality remain narrowly focused on two available measures: test scores and high school graduation rates. Test scores have become increasingly unpopular due to a sense that high-stakes tests drive unhealthy competition and detract from other valuable school programs and for their stubborn resistance to change. But graduation rates are easy to love because they do not have such obvious negative consequences on schooling—and because they keep going up.

Between 2011 and 2017, US graduation rates rose from 79 to 84 percent, an all-time high and the fifth record in a row since the federal government redefined how graduation rates are calculated and reported.1 Those record numbers have naturally drawn a lot of attention and praise—and deservedly so when they reflect that school systems are reducing dropouts and increasing numbers of students who leave ready for college or a career. However, like high-stakes tests, pressure to improve graduation rates can create per­verse incentives for schools. This makes knowing how schools are making them rise as important as know­ing that they are rising.

As graduation rates have been on the rise, so have credit recovery programs. These programs provide makeup courses, often involving online instruction, that allow students who have fallen behind or failed a high school class to earn credits and get back on track to graduate without having to retake the origi­nal course. Of course, makeup courses are not new, as summer school and repeating courses are long-existing options most adults remember from high school. But efforts to build quicker and more flexi­ble programs to get lagging students back on track to graduate have gained momentum in recent years—so has the market for online services that facilitate them. The growth of credit recovery programs over time is difficult to assess with available data, but the pro­grams have spread far and wide. In 2016, about three in four US high schools offered some kind of credit recovery program, and about 6 percent of high school students participated in one.2

The rise of credit recovery programs has brought more attention, and scrutiny, around their execution and effectiveness. As David Loewenberg notes in Edu­cation Next, increased government and private invest­ments to expand tech in schools has catalyzed the boom of a “vast and lucrative education-technology market,” which includes an array of online credit recovery providers for districts to choose from.3 Such programs do help more students graduate; Loe­wenberg gives the example of Newburgh, New York, which saw its graduation rate rise from 66 to 78 in just five years after implementing online credit recovery.

But dramatic jumps like this are not necessarily something to celebrate. In Newburgh’s case, a dis­trict attorney investigation revealed that faculty were using the program to fudge the numbers, including artificially changing grades and awarding credit to absent students.

Alarming accounts are increasingly common, with headlines such as “‘Fail Me’ School’s Kids Can Take Year’s Worth of Classes in 6 Weeks,” “School Saves 150 Failing Students with Quickie Online Courses,” and “CMS Launches Investigation into Credit Recov­ery Center Allegations.”4 Article series from Slate and the New York Post have highlighted countless other examples.5 In some cases, credit recovery has been part of major scandals, such as in 2017, when 15 per­cent of graduates in the District of Columbia received necessary credit through credit recovery despite never taking the original classes.6

Despite alarming anecdotes, the fact remains that little is known about the inner workings of credit recovery programs or their effectiveness. What are the actual policies governing these programs, and who is responsible for enforcing them? The limited informa­tion we have suggests that the answers vary widely across states and school districts. After all, these policy decisions generally fall to school districts, which typ­ically establish credit recovery programs and ink con­tracts with online vendors. And different districts have different student populations, schedules, state require­ments, budgets, and online programs to choose from. These factors allow for a wide range of credit recovery programs, as Loewenberg concisely lays out.

There is also tremendous variation in what district and state credit-recovery policies, standards, and reg­ulations look like—if they exist at all. . . . Some pro­grams are condensed face-to-face classes, others are completely online, and still others are “blended,” in which students work in a computer lab with support from a certified teacher. In some districts, courses are graded on a pass/fail basis, while in others students can earn scores up to 100 percent. Some districts cap the number of credit-recovery courses a student can time at one time, while others don’t. Some districts require students take paper-and-pencil assessments proctored by a teacher, while others allow testing to be completed at home on a computer. Some online classes are used to make up parts of a course, while others are designed as a wholesale replacement.7

Despite the good reasons to establish credit recov­ery programs and the strong reactions to programs that make the papers, it remains difficult to paint a clear picture of the credit recovery landscape in America. That difficulty stems from districts’ strong incentives to improve graduation rates and push credit recovery far ahead of not only research but also the policy guiding these programs. The purpose of this report is to survey districts about the actual credit recovery policies in place in American public school districts.

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Notes

1. National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data, “Table 1. Public High School 4-Year Adjusted Cohort Gradua­tion Rate (ACGR), by Race/Ethnicity and Selected Demographic Characteristics for the United States, the 50 States, and the District of Columbia: School Year 2015–16,” October 25, 2017, https://nces.ed.gov/ccd/tables/ACGR_RE_and_characteristics_2015-16.asp.

2. The US Department of Education’s National Survey on High School Strategies Designed to Help At-Risk Students Graduate shows significantly higher numbers: 89 percent of US high schools reported offering a credit recovery program, and school principals estimated that an average of 15 percent of high school students participated. However, because principals’ responses were recorded on a 100-point online slider, which is poorly suited to gauging small percentages, the participation rate estimates are likely overstated. See US Department of Education, “National Survey on High School Strategies Designed to Help At-Risk Students Graduate,” https:// www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/opepd/ppss/reports-high-school.html. I rely instead on the descriptive statistics from the Civil Rights Data Collection in this report and my previous report due to its more conservative estimates, size, currency, and administrative (rather than survey) data.

3. David Loewenberg, “A Digital Path to a Diploma,” Education Next 20, no. 1 (Winter 2020), https://www.educationnext.org/ digital-path-to-diploma-online-credit-recovery-classes/.

4. Susan Edelman, Lorena Mongelli, and Bruce Golding, “‘Fail Me’ School’s Kids Can Take Year’s Worth of Classes in 6 Weeks,” New York Post, August 5, 2015, https://nypost.com/2015/08/05/fail-me-schools-kids-can-take-years-worth-of-classes-in-6-weeks/; Susan Edelman, “School Saves 150 Failing Students with Quickie Online Courses,” New York Post, July 19, 2015, https://nypost.com/2015/07/19/ school-saves-150-failing-students-with-quickie-online-courses/; and Dedrick Russell, “CMS Launches Investigation into Credit Recov­ery Center Allegations,” WBTV.com, August 2, 2017, https://www.wbtv.com/story/36037677/cms-launches-investigation-into-credit-recovery-center-allegations/.

5. Zoe Kirsch, “The New Diploma Mills,” Slate, May 23, 2017, https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2017/05/u-s-high-schools-may-be-over-relying-on-online-credit-recovery-to-boost-their-graduation-rates.html; and Susan Edelman and Bruce Golding, “DOE Official Was Informed of Effort to Graduate Failing Students,” New York Post, August 10, 2015, https://nypost.com/2015/08/10/doe-official-was-informed-of-effort-to-graduate-failing-students/.

6. Alvarez & Marsal, “Final Report District of Columbia Public Schools Audit and Investigation,” Office of the State Superintendent of Education, January 26, 2018, https://osse.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/osse/release_content/attachments/Report%20on% 20DCPS%20Graduation%20and%20Attendance%20Outcomes%20-%20Alvarez%26Marsal.pdf.

7. Loewenberg, “A Digital Path to a Diploma.”

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