Commentary

What We're Getting Wrong About Credit Recovery

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Don't trust a school's graduation rate without checking its credit-recovery program

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The news has rarely been kind to credit-recovery programs. These make-up courses give students who have failed a class a chance to get back on track to graduate. Outright scandals­—such as when 15 percent of graduates in the District of Columbia received necessary credit through credit recovery despite never taking the original classes—are obvious black marks. More numerous are accounts like those in Los Angeles, New York, Nashville, Tenn., and other districts, where dubious graduation-rate gains occur while teachers protest liberal and low-quality credit-recovery programs.

Even positive stories, like Tulsa World’s recent glowing account of the Tulsa school district’s summer credit-recovery program, end up sounding decidedly negative. As the article mentions, the district doubled its summer graduates from the previous year, from 44 to 87, in a credit-recovery program where students earned “an entire semester’s worth of credit for a class in a single day,” and one earned credit for “21 courses, essentially an entire school year, in just a matter of weeks.” The fact that students were able to earn credit so quickly makes us wonder about the quality of credit recovery in Tulsa.

"When we looked for policy information on the websites of 200 districts with high participation rates, we found basic information missing far too often."

Sometimes done over the summer, as in Tulsa, credit recovery is more frequently offered during the school year, in online formats or "blended" ones, where students work on a computer with teacher support. Done well, these programs can get students back on track without sacrificing instructional quality or rigor. Accounts like the ones we’ve mentioned, however, raise troubling questions about the quality of credit recovery and whether it’s being used to help students meet expectations—or get around them.

Unfortunately, the difference in programs from school to school, and district to district, makes it difficult to gauge how widespread quality problems might be. However, a new AEI report on credit-recovery participation in every U.S. high school provides a first national look at the landscape of these programs, and uncovers patterns that might help identify where quality problems can crop up.

Though credit recovery is offered in 74 percent of the nation’s high schools and one in every 13 high school students participates, our concern is with schools with far-above-average credit-recovery participation. The report focused on two groups of schools. “Elevated” credit-recovery schools have student participation rates 150 to 300 percent above average. Fourteen percent of high schools were “elevated” schools, and nearly one-third of all credit-recovery students attended them. “Peak” credit-recovery schools, with rates more than three times the national average, made up just 8 percent of schools, but served 39 percent of all credit-recovery students. In other words, 71 percent of all credit-recovery students are concentrated in just 22 percent of schools. At this volume, credit recovery invites the kind of quality problems evident in Tulsa.

But quality problems are only part of our concern. “Elevated”—and especially ”peak” schools—have far more poor and minority students and lower reading and math proficiency rates than do schools with lower participation, compounding quality issues with equity concerns. Peak schools also had markedly lower graduation rates, but revealingly, had the highest graduation-rate increases for four years running, raising red flags about credit recovery’s role in graduation-rate inflation.

The onus is on districts to assure credit-recovery program quality, but when we looked for policy information on the websites of 200 districts with high participation rates, we found basic information missing far too often. The missing information included when credit recovery was offered, which courses students could take, and how it was administered. Fifteen percent of districts provided no information on credit recovery whatsoever. At best, this missing information on programs that serve a large and growing number of students suggests that credit-recovery policies are poorly communicated. At worst, it means too few policies are in place.

High-volume, low-quality programs potentially harm students, particularly the least advantaged among them. District leaders should know how effective their programs are and at a bare minimum provide basic information about the programs’ administration or quality controls. Leaders, especially those in districts with high participation rates, need to ensure that, as their programs serve more and more students, districts are not sacrificing quality or rigor.

Tulsa is a cautionary case. Its program grants credits extremely quickly, and to a large percentage of students. With about 2,000 12th graders, the 87 extra graduates from its summer credit-recovery program will bump up the district’s graduation rate this year by 4 percentage points, twice the bump from last year. Oklahoma’s rate as a whole isn’t raising many red flags—its school and student credit-recovery participation rates are right near the national average. Tulsa shows us that problem districts may not lie in problem states, so district leaders should not necessarily take comfort in low statewide participation rates.

Credit recovery, done well, can give students a second chance to stay on track for graduation, without lowering expectations or holding students to lesser standards. But assumptions about adequate quality can be dangerous when more than one in five schools have a substantial number of students participating in these programs. While rising graduation rates may signal progress for struggling students, district leaders must be vigilant about ensuring the quality of the credit-recovery programs that fuel the rates. If they aren’t, the next credit-recovery scandal may come to their district—or worse, fly under the radar while leaving more students with watered-down diplomas, ill-equipped for college or career.

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