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Montana's Online Credit Recovery Program Scrutinized by Researchers

Of the thousands of Montana students who turned to a state-run virtual program to make up courses they previously failed, 57 percent successfully passed, according to a new study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences.

The new study is the latest in an emerging series of looks into the controversial world of online credit recovery, which has exploded in popularity despite scant evidence of its effectiveness. 

Nearly 90 percent of U.S. school districts now offer such programs or courses, according to the June 2016 report, titled "Online Credit Recovery: Enrollment and Passing Patterns in Montana Digital Academy Courses."  But recent reports from the International Association for K-12 Online Learning and the American Institutes for Research both highlighted problems with such offerings, and researchers and analysts have expressed growing criticism of the model.

The study of credit-recovery in Montana looked at enrollment and course-passage patterns at the Montana Digital Academy (MTDA) during the 2013-14 school year. The state-run school, hosted at the University of Montana, offers more than 50 online credit recovery courses, as well as online courses for original credit. The school uses its own certified teachers, who serve as academic area coaches, and local school personnel, who are encouraged to provide technical support, academic progress monitoring, and consistent access to computers, high-speed internet, and other services.

Among the main findings: 

  • During the 2013-14 school year, 2,452 students accounted for 3,763 unique enrollments at MTDA (many students enrolled in more than one course.) 
  • 60 percent of enrollments were by male students.
  • 65 percent of enrollments were by students in grades 10 or 11.
  • 37 percent of enrollments were in English/language arts courses, compared to 19 percent for math and 17 percent for science.
  • Overall, MTDA students passed 57 percent of the online credit-recovery courses in which they were enrolled.
  • Course-passage rates were higher for female students (60 percent), 12th graders (63 percent), and students in social studies courses (71 percent.)
  • Course-passage rates were lower for students in math courses (49 percent) and ELA courses (52 percent.)
  • Students who took more than one online credit-recovery course passed at a higher rate (68 percent) than those who took a single course (40 percent.)

Interviews conducted by the researchers with state and school leaders highlighted some challenges associated with online credit recovery, including low engagement levels from students, difficulty providing students with comprehensive supports, and an increase in difficulty in math and ELA courses that were recently reconfigured in order to align with the Common Core State Standards.


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