Online Credit Recovery Grows, Despite Criticism

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Cross-posted from the Digital Education blog

By guest blogger Michelle R. Davis

School districts should move toward online credit recovery programs that help students recapture smaller portions of courses, do a better job pushing students to demonstrate mastery, and incorporate more face-to-face support, concludes a new report from the International Association for K-12 Online Learning.

As districts seek to boost their graduation rates, they’re increasingly turning to online credit recovery, which aims to help students pass classes previously failed. According to the report, “Using Online Learning for Credit Recovery: Getting Back on Track to Graduation,” 88 percent of districts offered some form of credit recovery to students in the 2009-10 academic year, much of that in an online format.

Schools are often attracted to online credit recovery because it may cost less than more traditional options, and it can offer greater flexibility to students, allowing them to retake courses at a time and on a pace that works for them.

But the report finds that such programs need to evolve in order to be effective. Some credit recovery programs have come under fire in the last few years for being low-quality and passing students through without providing measurable learning gains. As part of a recent National Public Radio report on graduation rates, reporters examined credit recovery programs that had questionable rigor. New York City’s use of credit recovery has also come under fire for being used to inflate graduation rates without holding students accountable for learning.

The iNACOL report echoes some of these concerns, disparaging low-quality credit recovery courses that primarily involve students sitting in front of a computer with little teacher interaction.

“Too many credit recovery programs are out there just pushing students to the finish line on graduation with low rigor or just flexible pacing, but without the skills development,” said Susan D. Patrick, the president and CEO of iNACOL. “We intentionally call that out as being not appropriate.”

Credit Recovery Gets Creative

But the report does highlight strategies to be emphasized and current examples that are working. Competency-based credit recovery programs, in which students advance based on being able to show mastery of a topic, are beneficial, the reports says. Because these programs do base completion on mastery rather than seat time, they allow for alternative methods of progression by students.

In some cases, students may skip parts of courses in which they’ve demonstrated understanding through high-quality assessment. Other credit recovery options include what the report calls “unit recovery,” which allow “students to retake just the units or competencies they need in order to advance.”

For example, at the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School in New Hampshire, which also serves as the state’s virtual school, 62 competency-based recovery courses are offered.  Students may retake an entire class, but they also may re-take only the units or portions of the course that they did not master.

If a student passed assessments on eight out of 10 key concepts in a class, he or she can use credit recovery to only retake the two that weren’t mastered instead of going back over the whole course, Patrick said. “If there’s one lesson in a traditional Algebra class they just had a hard time with, they can enroll (in the Virtual Learning Academy) and make it up,” Patrick said. “It makes you scratch your head as to why you would wait for a student to go through and fail the entire course.”

Other schools and districts are taking a similar approach. The Putnam County Schools Virtual Instruction to Accentuate Learning, or VITAL, program in Tennessee includes an initiative that doesn’t wait for students to fail a class, but connects with students as they start to fall behind, the report says. Students work on credit recovery modules at home, during lunch, and after school to catch up.

Even Online, Students Need In-Person Support

Face-to-face support can also play a key role.

At John Marshall High School in the Chicago public schools, the Pathway to Accelerated Student Success, or PASS, pairs students who have dropped out of school and re-enrolled or students who are more than a year behind in graduation requirements, with a student advocate, the report says

In the Colorado Youth for Change program, a nonprofit organization working with nine Denver-area school districts, online credit recovery courses are done in computer labs of 25, supported by one or two teachers and volunteers.

And at the Wichita, Kan., schools’ Learning Centers, students seeking credit recovery use online courses that allow them to move quickly through content they’ve mastered and spend more time on content they struggle with. Licensed teachers staff the centers, which also have a counselor and a student support liaison to arrange for services that could include child care, transportation, and housing and meal vouchers.

“We know it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach,” when it comes to online credit recovery, Patrick said. “We wanted to examine a range of diverse programs … so education leaders can look at various options before designing their own programs.”

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