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Volume 28, Number 2
March/April 2012

Course Credits on the Quick

Controversial online recovery programs speed the path to graduation


The lessons in John Rice’s English III class at Anacostia High School in Washington, D.C., are as varied as the music wafting from his students’ headphones. They veer from Death of a Salesman to Beowulf, from the meaning of “pathos” to how to write a resume.

While the delivery is high-tech—online, via laptop—the students are engaged in a practice as old as summer school. They’ve all taken English III before and failed. Now, a relatively new and controversial process called online credit recovery is allowing them to advance toward graduation in a fraction of the time they would typically have to spend retaking a class.

Credit recovery is a burgeoning part of the estimated $2 billion online education industry, accounting for half of all online instruction in the country, according to a 2010 survey by market research firm Simba Information. A November 2011 study by the National Center for Education Statistics suggests that one-third of the nation’s school districts use some form of online credit recovery, among them some of the largest: Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City.

The offerings vary widely, from online labs with almost no input from a teacher to models that blend virtual lessons with one-on-one tutoring. On that continuum, Rice’s second-period English class falls somewhere in the middle. Students spend most of their time reading passages and clicking answers to quizzes through an online curriculum provided by Seattle-based Apex Learning. They work through the same modules at their own pace, moving on after scoring 70 percent or above on quizzes. Rice’s role is secondary, helping students when they get stuck.

A Focus on Mastery?
Student performance in credit recovery courses is measured by content mastery on tests and quizzes rather than the full range of measures, including regular attendance, used in a typical class. The lessons are private, which means they’re free of the social stigma that often comes with having to repeat a class with younger students.

From his laptop, Rice has access to a torrent of data. One student has been offline for three days and is 18 activities behind the suggested pacing guide. Another accessed the class that day and is three activities behind. Quiz results are color-coded. Green means a student passed on the first try. Yellow means it took two or three attempts. Red indicates the student failed twice and must get one-on-one tutoring from Rice.

But an important piece of data is missing for students at Anacostia and throughout the nation. While schools have access to cutting-edge content delivery, data systems that track student progress over time are still in their infancy. No one is evaluating how students fare once they leave credit recovery and head to the next course in the sequence. Are they prepared? Do their recovered credits indicate the same level of accomplishment as those of a student who passed the class after a year of seat time?

“Districts have historically not collected this data, and if it is collected, it is not accessible in any useful way,” says Cheryl Vedoe, CEO of Apex Learning, which provides online credit recovery lessons to the District of Columbia Public Schools through a three-year, $1.6 million contract. District of Columbia school officials say that they’ve only been using Apex for a year, so they lack adequate data.

The American Institutes for Research (AIR) is stepping into the data void with the first large-scale study of the effectiveness of online credit recovery. Funded with a $3 million grant from the federal Institute of Education Sciences, the four-year study, now in its second year, randomly assigns Chicago Public School students who failed Algebra I in ninth grade to either online credit recovery or traditional summer school. The study will see if students in credit recovery (both the online and summer school varieties) are as ready for the next course in the math sequence as students who originally passed Algebra I, and it will track their progress through graduation, using course grades and standardized test scores.

The study is based in part on a harrowing statistic: Only 13 percent of Chicago’s ninth-graders who failed Algebra I in 2005 graduated four years later. “These kids are really an at-risk group,” says Jessica Heppen, AIR’s principal investigator on the study. “That’s why it’s critically important to find out to what extent students who participate in credit recovery begin to resemble kids who did not fail.”

An Explosion of Courses
The study addresses critical questions at a time when the online credit recovery market—which is dominated by companies like Pearson, Plato Learning, Odyssey Online, Apex, and Aventa Learning, as well as district-led virtual schools—is exploding nationally. Gregg Levin, vice president of sales for Aventa, which was recently bought by K12 Inc., says that sales of its credit recovery courses increased eightfold between 2008 and 2011. The number of students taking Apex online courses grew from 126,000 in 2007–2008 to 344,000 in 2010–2011, with about half of them in credit recovery or remediation programs.

The boom is sparked by the confluence of three distinct educational trends: students’ increased fluency with online content, the renewed push to stem the nation’s dropout crisis, and state budget shortfalls leading to cuts in teacher-driven remedial programs. Though costs differ based on the amount of teacher involvement and other factors, online credit recovery tends to be cheaper than a traditional makeup course. For example, an online credit recovery course at the Florida Virtual School costs on average 30 percent less than a traditional class in the state.

The pressures on district officials to use credit recovery to beef up their graduation statistics have sparked some allegations of cheating and other violations. The New York State Education Department is investigating teachers’ allegations that credit recovery programs at A. Philip Randolph Campus High School in New York City were being used illicitly to boost graduation rates. At North High School in Denver, an investigation found that “monitoring by assigned personnel was lax,” with online credit recovery students using smartphones to find test answers on the Web.
Vedoe, CEO of Apex, which provides North High’s online content, says the issues involved are not unique to credit recovery. “If you’re assuming that because it’s a digital curriculum you don’t need teachers actively engaged in the classroom, you may run the risk of this sort of problem,” she says. “But it would be the same if a teacher handed out a paper test to the class and walked out into the hallway.”

As credit recovery grows, some groups are tightening standards and even proposing ways to regulate the industry (see sidebar “Advocating for Quality Credits”) and school districts are making adjustments. Dave Haglund, director of educational options for the Riverside Unified School District in California, says his district learned from experience. “We tried doing credit recovery where kids just signed in online and took it from home, and the success rate was pretty poor,” he says. Now the recovery classes are all conducted in schools, with a blend of 60 percent computer time and 40 percent direct instruction, and course completion rates have gone up dramatically.

Critics, however, find it hard to believe credit recovery as it exists now could be anything but a cheap and easy route to a meaningless diploma. “I can’t imagine a scale where 10 to 12 hours of an online class equates to 90 hours in a classroom,” says Russell Rumberger, director of the California Dropout Research Project at the University of California–Santa Barbara.

Successes and Trade-Offs
Rumberger could be talking about Shantise Summers, who takes online credit recovery at Anacostia High. At 18, she should be a senior, but she started the school year with only four credits on her transcript. For various reasons, she’d failed most of her classes. She didn’t like a teacher, so she stopped going to class. She had a baby. Housing headaches caused her to move repeatedly.

With renewed focus to graduate and eventually go to medical school, Shantise started credit recovery in August and midway through October had already completed geometry and English I, II, and III—each typically semester-long courses.

“You can go as fast as you want or take as long as you need,” Shantise says. “It’s better for people who are independent and work fast and learn fast.”

For Rice, a certified English teacher, Shantise’s success passes the sniff test. It was evident to him that she already knew most of the content offered in ninth- and tenth-grade English but that excessive absences had caused her to fail. If she had to repeat entire classes again, she likely would have gotten bored and dropped out. The Apex courses merely asked her to demonstrate skills she already had.

But Rice acknowledges some obvious trade-offs. Whereas students in the traditional classroom must complete several long essays, online credit recovery offers few opportunities for writing. And unlike traditional assessments, in which students apply concepts they’ve learned to new situations, the online tests tend to emphasize simple recall, he says. Yet students in his classes put in the equivalent of a 90-minute block of reading every day—far more than they’d get in any other class at the school. And they must rise to grade-level mastery as measured by a computer test; there’s no way a teacher could lower standards if students were having trouble, which might be possible in a traditional class, where promotion may depend largely on the subjective judgment of the teacher.

A Low-Tech Investigation
The credit recovery program at Anacostia High is the result of a massive shakeup that resulted in the removal of nearly all the school’s staff members and the splitting of the school into four separate academies. The school had failed to meet federal benchmarks, and its graduation rates hovered around 58 percent—among the worst in the city. One of the four academies, serving more than 250 students, is devoted entirely to credit recovery.

Rice, the school’s online site coordinator, is proud of the course completion rates of students in his English classes—60 percent last year, up from 20 percent the year before, when credit recovery at the school transitioned online. But he is curious about how his students progress once they leave credit recovery. One day he conducted an extremely low-tech investigation: He jogged up a flight of stairs to the classroom of Lauren Sturner, who teaches a traditional English IV class.

Because of the way data is maintained at the school, Rice doesn’t know which of his students go on to Sturner’s class, and Sturner doesn’t know which of her students come from online credit recovery. So they went over her roster together. The results surprised them. Those who had come from Rice’s credit recovery sections “tend to be the better students in the class,” she says—smarter, more attentive, and harder working.

But Sturner remains unsure about online credit recovery. While it can work well when teachers like Rice closely monitor students, she says, it can easily degenerate into “sitting a kid in front of a computer to have them fake it through class and not actually do anything.”

“Even in this building,” Sturner says, “some online instructors do better than others—just like in the regular classroom.”

Andrew Brownstein is an editor at Thompson Publishing Group in Washington, D.C. He writes about federal K–12 education policy.

Also by this Author

    For Further Information

    For Further Information

    J. Bathon. Model Legislation Related to Online Learning Opportunities for Students in Public Elementary and Secondary Education Schools. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center, 2011.

    G. V. Glass, K. G. Welner, and J. Bathon. Online K–12 Schooling in the U.S. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center, 2011.

    NCAA Initial-Eligibility Core-Course Requirements