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Online Credit Recovery: Students Fare Worse Than Peers, Research Finds

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By guest blogger Benjamin Herold. Cross-posted from Digital Education.

High school students who took an online makeup course after failing Algebra I had lower scores, grades, and credit-recovery rates than their peers who took the same course in a traditional face-to-face setting, according to new research from the American Institutes of Research.

However, while students benefited from the face-to-face credit-recovery course in the short term, the long-term impact appeared to be minimal: Successfully making up Algebra I via a credit recovery class of either type did not appear to lead to students becoming more likely to succeed in more-advanced math classes later in high school or becoming more likely to graduate.

"I think [our findings] raise some cautions about the ways online courses are implemented and build in supports," said Jessica Heppen, a managing researcher at AIR and the principal investigator on the new study, in an interview. "There is certainly room for improving schools' approach to offering credit recovery in both types of formats."

The "Back on Track" study, being presented as a series of research briefs at the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association this weekend, represents one of the first comprehensive examinations of how online credit recovery impacts student achievement and outcomes.

The study covers 1,224 9th grade students from 17 Chicago public schools who failed Algebra 1 and enrolled in summer school in 2011 or 2012. According to the primary brief released this week, titled "Comparing the Effectiveness of Online and Face-to-Face Credit Recovery in Algebra I," that subject was picked because more students fail Algebra I than any other course, and doing so leaves them particularly unlikely to graduate.

The students were randomly assigned by lottery to either a face-to-face or online version of the same credit-recovery course. The face-to-face version was taught by certified Chicago Public Schools teachers. The online version of the Algebra I course used by the Chicago schools in the study was provided by Aventa Learning/K12 Inc. (now known as FuelEd Online Courses.)

A spokeswoman from K12 Inc. noted that the study covered student courses from five years ago, that students in online courses that included in-person mentors (as the company recommends) performed similar to students in face-to-face courses, and that any short-term differences in performance evaporated over time.

"There are many factors to success in any class—whether in an online, blended, or a traditional setting—including student engagement in the course, in-class support, course rigor, demographics, student preparedness, comfort with technology, and many others," reads a statement provided by the company.

"We have learned a lot about online and blended curriculum and instruction in the last five years. While there is no silver bullet solution for any student, we will continually work to incorporate what we learn into our offerings

Heppen said the research results do not necessarily apply to online credit-recovery courses offered by other providers, although the Aventa course is in wide use nationally and is "representative of a lot of what's out there."

Among the study's major findings: 

  • 66 percent of students who took the online Algebra I makeup course successfully recovered credit, compared with 76 percent of students who took the face-to-face version of the course.
  • 31 percent of students who took the online course earned an A, B, or C grade, compared with 53 percent of those who took the face-to-face course.
  • On average, students who took the online course successfully answered 38 percent of the Algebra I test items on an end-of-course exam, while those who took the face-to-face exam successfully answered 40 percent of those items, a statistically significant difference. The test items came from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, known as "the nation's report card."
  • There were no significant differences between students who took the course online versus face-to-face when it came to subsequently enrolling in higher-level math classes or being on track to graduate at the end of their second year of high school.

The online Algebra I credit-recovery course was also determined to be more difficult than the face-to-face version, both via student surveys and the researchers' review of the academic content that was actually taught in each course. In part, the researchers found, that was because the teachers in the face-to-face course had some discretion about what to teach and often chose to attempt to fill in gaps in students' understanding of pre-algebra and other earlier math content.

Even so, "there was little evidence of algebra learning" in either version of the course and little to suggest that credit recovery in any form "changed students' generally low-performing trajectories," the study found.

That has potentially huge implications for districts, many of which are spending millions on efforts to create options for students who fail courses.

When it comes to online credit-recovery courses, the researchers found, one strategy that may make a difference is the use of "instructionally supportive" mentors in the classroom. Generally, for this study, that meant certified teachers, not uncertified aides. Having access to such a mentor led to higher credit-recovery rates, AIR found.

The study was funded by the Institute for Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education. 


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