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Online Credit Recovery Fuels Higher Grad Rates, But Learning Suffers, Report Finds

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Schools are increasingly turning to online-only credit recovery courses to help students who have fallen behind in their regular classes graduate on time. The good news: These courses do seem to help students graduate on time and even enroll in college.

The not-so-great news? These students don't seem to be learning as much as their peers in regular, face-to-face classes.

That's the conclusion of a new "working paper" released this month, and an article published earlier this year in the American Educational Research Journal.

The researchers—from Vanderbilt University and the University of Wisconsin—did a longitudinal study of an unnamed large urban school district in the Midwest, which started offering online course taking opportunities in 2010, generally to help students who had fallen behind catch up. By the 2016-17 school year, 40 percent of seniors had taken at least one course through the online system.

Researchers examined the data from the online program's vendor and the district's student outcome data. What's more, they conducted more than 300 observations of student and classroom use of the credit recovery software and more than 30 interviews with instructors and district staff.

In a nutshell: Their preliminary analysis found that there's a positive association between online course-taking and graduation. In fact, students who took the online courses were about 13 percent more likely to graduate than similar students who didn't' take the courses. And those who participated in credit recovery were more likely to enroll in college, with estimated increases in two-and-four-year college-going of about 2.5 percent. 

But there was a negative association between taking online courses, primarily for credit recovery, and performance on districtwide standardized tests, the researchers found. And the more online classes a student took, the worse they scored.

Classroom observations also showed a mix of promising practices—and obvious trouble spots.

"We've seen the good, the bad, and the ugly," said Carolyn J. Heinrich, a professor of public policy, education, and economics at Vanderbilt University, and one of the authors of both the journal article and the working paper. "There are kids who come in and they are really motivated to get done, we do believe, and we've heard from teachers that some kids wouldn't be in school if they didn't have this option."

That's especially true of pregnant or parenting teens and those just coming of the criminal justice system, she said.

But there are others who are just sitting in the labs, not really listening to the online lectures. Students will instead skip to the end-of-course assessments and just google the answers.

"Some teachers were really blatant and said they didn't think that learning was happening," Heinrich said. The problem? Vendors design many of these credit-recovery tools as "blended learning," meaning the teacher is suppposed to play a big role in supporting instruction. But teachers don't always have the time or bandwidth to do that. 

Heinrich and her team are far from finished exploring credit recovery. They have plans to track labor market and college outcomes for kids who took the online courses.

The credit-recovery trend isn't going away anytime soon. Three quarters of U.S. high schools are offering digital instruction to help students who have failed a course make up the credit, stay on track for graduation, and finish their degree, according to the working paper. 

The findings don't come out of nowhere. Researchers have been puzzling over the fact that national graduation rates are inching up year after year, hitting an all-time high of 84 percent in the 2015-16 school year, at the same time that scores on the National Assessment for Educational Progress are stagnant.

And the results are similar to what other researchers have found. Students who took an online Algebra course had lower credit recovery rates, lower scores on an end-of-course algebra assessment, and less confidence in their mathematical skills than students who took a face-to-face credit recovery class, according to a 2016 study published in the Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness.

What's more, the American Enterprise Institute also examined the issue and found that high-poverty schools were more likely to rely on credit recovery. And districts aren't putting out nearly enough information to help assess the quality of those courses. For more information, check out this commentary piece by Nat Malkus, the deputy director of education policy at AEI, and Amy Cummings, a research assistant.  

Image: Getty 


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