School & District Management

Questions About Credit Recovery Fall Disproportionately on Poor, Minority Students

By Catherine Gewertz — November 29, 2018 4 min read
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Credit recovery has come under increasing scrutiny as a quick, sub-par way to get high school diplomas into the hands of academically struggling students. And the schools likeliest to rely heavily on credit recovery are the ones that serve large populations of low-income and minority students, according to a study published Thursday.

The report, issued by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, represents the most recent attempt to compose a heat map of the places that use credit recovery to help students graduate. With that map laid out, and questions about the misuse of credit recovery multiplying, the report poses the question: What should be done to curb abuses and ensure that students finish high school with good academic skills?

First, the main findings.

  • High concentrations of credit recovery are most likely in urban schools, and in schools that serve large percentages of low-income or minority students. These two charts show how poverty and race correlate with the chances that a school will have 20 percent or more of its students enrolled in credit recovery:
  • Charter schools are less likely than other kinds of schools to offer credit-recovery courses. But when they do offer those classes, charters are more likely than non-charters to have large shares of students taking them. The average credit-recovery participation rate in charters that offer credit-recovery is 32 percent, compared with 9 percent across all school types, the Fordham study found.

A Focus on ‘Typical’ High Schools

These findings don’t include all 15,500 U.S. high schools. Co-authors Adam Tyner and Nicholas Munyan-Penney wanted to focus on “typical” high schools, so they excluded alternative, vocational or online schools, or schools designed for students in detention facilities or with special needs.

From the resulting group of 12,451 schools, they found 8,573—69 percent—with active credit-recovery programs, and focused their study on that group. On average, 8 percent of students in those schools were taking one or more credit-recovery courses. But at nearly 1 in 10 of those schools, 20 percent or more students are taking those classes.

The findings in the new report echo and reinforce the conclusions from a study on credit recovery released in September by the American Enterprise Institute, which identified schools with “elevated” or “peak” levels of credit-recovery use, and a much stronger likelihood that they serve large populations of minority and low-income students.

Neither report dives into the question that’s been taking on more urgency as credit recovery gets more popular: How good is it? Research is particularly thin on the question of program quality. The few rigorous studies on that question have produced mixed results.

The Need to Reexamine Credit Recovery Use

A pileup of anecdotes from high schools around the country, however, raises questions about the rigor of credit-recovery courses and suggests that more than a few schools are misusing them to speed students through school even though they haven’t mastered the required coursework.

Skeptics have noted that even as the national high school graduation rate reaches an all-time-high of 84 percent, there have been no parallel improvements on states’ standardized high school tests, or the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Tyner, Fordham’s associate director of research, said he hopes the new study can “shine a light” on credit recovery and encourage policymakers and local administrators to examine their programs for appropriate quality and use.

“There’s been all this pressure to raise graduation rates and not a lot of questioning of how that’s being done,” he said. “If [credit recovery] is a way of getting students to graduate without having learned much, maybe we haven’t incentivized our schools the right way, and we need to make sure they’re doing the right thing.”

Done Right, Credit Recovery Can Work

Even as the Fordham authors urge a close examination of credit recovery, they caution policymakers and educators against seeing it as universally deficient.

“It’s premature to make sweeping generalizations about the value and efficacy of these programs,” they say in the report. “Like most educational interventions, we can find places that are experiencing genuine success as a result of the intervention, but we can also find places that manifest dismal failure.”

To combat the problem of “varied and uneven” quality, the co-authors issued recommendations for districts whose schools use credit recovery, including:

  • Set credit-recovery policies with clear eligibility requirements. Courses should be reserved for students who have failed classes.
  • Rigorously vet and monitor online credit-recovery programs. States should consider evaluating and rating course options, and perhaps even requiring districts to adopt only highly rated programs.
  • Automatically audit programs with high enrollment.
  • Require students to pass an outside assessment, such as their state’s end-of-course exam, to verify that they mastered the same course content in credit-recovery as in the standard course.


What We Are Getting Wrong About Credit Recovery

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.