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Credit Recovery: Are Face-to-Face Classes Better Than Online?

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Teaching credit-recovery courses face-to-face doesn't help students earn credits or graduate on time any better than teaching them online, according to a new study.

Researchers examined credit accumulation and high school graduation rates for a group of 9th grade students who were randomly assigned to online or in-person credit-recovery courses after they failed Algebra 1. They found no statistically significant differences between the two groups.

The study was published online July 19 in the journal Educational Researcher. Jordan Rickles, a principal researcher at the American Institutes of Research, led the team of five, which included researchers from AIR and the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

It arrives amid increasing debate about schools' use of credit recovery to help students make up credits for courses they failed. Some schools and districts have come under fire for relying on credit recovery as a quick fix, or as a way to inflate their graduation rates. Many educators argue, however, that used well, credit recovery can play an important role in helping students master key skills and get their diplomas.

Quality, Rigor: Unanswered Questions

The AIR study doesn't tackle the question of whether online credit recovery classes are as good as the regular courses that make up most high school students' days. "Rigorous evidence about the effectiveness of online courses for credit recovery is lacking," the report says.

Many educators remain concerned that online credit recovery—which typically allows students to set their own pace and complete requirements quickly—shortchanges students on real learning.

The new study looks instead at two ways of teaching credit-recovery courses, and asks whether the face-to-face approach is more effective in helping students earn credits and graduate on time.

The answer is a resounding "no."

A 2017 study that compared 1,224 Chicago students who took online or face-to-face credit recovery courses in Algebra 1 found that students in the online version were less likely to pass, and scored worse on end-of-course tests.

The AIR research team wanted to expand on that by looking at longer-term results: credit accumulation and graduation. They followed the 1,224 students from the 2017 Chicago study to see how they fared three years later.

By the end of their fourth year in high school, students in the online group were 4.6 credits short, and the face-to-face group was 4.7 credits short of the math credits they needed for graduation. 

The two groups had identical graduation rates, too: 47 percent of the students in each type of credit-recovery class graduated on time.

The study did find that students who successfully complete credit recovery after failing Algebra 1 accumulate more credits, and are more likely to graduate on time, than those who didn't complete credit recovery, or those who didn't even sign up for it.

Persistent Questions About Online Credit Recovery

Overall, the study "raises questions about the rush to online courses for credit recovery, especially without giving careful consideration to the specifics about how the online course will be implemented, the bundle of instructional features that comprise implementation of an online course, and the academic and social-emotional needs of at-risk students," the co-authors wrIte.

The 2017 study found that in the short term, face-to-face credit-recovery instruction is better for students than the online type, it notes.

"The online course may not provide the same degree of personal support as the [face-to-face] class, which may be particularly important for students who have already failed the course in the past... [T]there is no evidence that online courses provide a better opportunity for students to get back on track than traditional [face-to-face] courses, despite the optimism that has been expressed about them."


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