Low-Quality Credit Recovery Programs Are the New Summer School
Summer school — for many a familiar image of grueling hours in a hot classroom to make up a failed course — has largely become a thing of the past. In the span of just one academic generation, traditional summer school has been largely replaced by credit recovery programs, which are restricted to neither the summer nor the schoolroom.
Credit recovery programs provide makeup courses, usually online, that allow students who have fallen behind or failed a high school class earn credits and get back on track to graduate without retaking the original course. These programs have become widely popular across the country because they help students graduate and boost schools’ graduation rates. In 2015–16, nearly three quarters of US public high schools reported offering credit recovery programs, and 6% of high school students participated.
As these programs have spread, so have scandalous stories of easy credit being given for little effort, boosting graduation rates without increasing student learning. Earlier this year, for example, a Newburgh, New Jersey grand jury found the school district abused its program, granting dozens of students credit for a 45-day quarter of class with less than two hours of effort. The year before in Washington, D.C., 13% of the districts graduates “earned” diplomas while violating the districts’ commonsense credit recovery requirements.
In the face of such a quick transformation, and with reason to worry about these programs’ quality, it is reasonable to wonder: Have districts’ credit recovery policies kept pace with these new practices?
To find out, my research team asked about the policies in 200 school districts from across the country that had 10% or higher credit recovery participation (There are over 1,600 such districts nationwide). We asked districts about when credit recovery is offered, whether it is administered online, how grades are replaced, and other requirements that might ensure learning in these courses was up to the district’s typical standards. Responses from 84% of those districts revealed that most districts’ policies allow lots of flexibility for student access and assessment, and come with relatively few constraints, a combination that leaves plenty of room for programs to end up high on completion rates and low on rigor.
Almost 90% offer credit recovery year-round, and 95% offer it online. When it comes to how those programs are administered, 61% of districts reported that students can test out of lessons in their online programs by passing “pretests.” Almost 70% have no minimum seat time requirements, meaning that students can complete the courses at their own pace, and as quickly as they can. In addition, almost six in 10 responding districts’ credit recovery programs are wholly computer graded, and more than eight in 10 do not require students to take a separate, school-administered exam as a check on the validity of online courses’ embedded tests.
Districts may have justifiable reasons to adopt any one of these flexible credit recovery policies. Test-out options allow students who have mastered certain lessons complete their credits more efficiently. No seat time requirements accommodate students who learn at various paces. Online grading might be high quality and could save giving teachers extra work. Going without an independent assessment can prevent duplicative work.
Taken together, however, these policies offer little assurance that serious attention is given to quality and rigor. When a district sets up a credit recovery program that lets students skip through lessons, do it as quickly as they want, avoid having a teacher examine their work, and not worry about a final test outside the online program, the reasons for worry compound. Looking across all eight policy choices we asked about that could be steps toward quality assurance in these districts — such as having a specified seat-time or requiring a school-administered exam — we found that a fifth of districts had none of these potential guardrails. More than half had just one.
The results of our report do not systematically capture whether credit recovery overall does more harm than good, but they raise questions about how seriously districts take the rigor of these make up courses. The conversations my team had with district officials indicate that many districts have a real rigor problem. “It’s too easy for students,” said one. “They can finish a semester in about two weeks.” Another commented, “We are caught between seeing that students graduate or really learn the material!” School districts, especially those that give a lot of credits through these programs, need to have good answers to the question, “How will you ensure your credit recovery programs ensure basic rigor of student learning?” Too many do not.
Undoubtedly, it’s a worthy goal to help struggling students get back on track to graduate. However, since reaching that goal is difficult, how districts pursue it is as important as that they pursue it. In most districts, these programs aim to push students that are already struggling to meet expectations quickly, mostly online, and with relatively little help from teachers. That is a tall order, but if districts don’t establish concrete policies to ensure students are actually learning in these programs, far too many simply won’t. The sad result of low-quality credit recovery is that it harms the already struggling students it is meant to help, producing more graduates who leave school unprepared for life after graduation.