College & Workforce Readiness What the Research Says

5 Ways to Make Online Credit Recovery Work Better for Struggling Students

By Sarah D. Sparks — June 07, 2022 5 min read
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The way districts design their online credit recovery systems can make a big difference in whether the programs provide needed support for struggling students—or just an empty credit.

Nearly 7 in 10 high schools allow students to retake failed classes or improve their grades by repeating the content online. While some studies have found this can boost graduation rates, the model has been criticized for allowing students to disengage and leading to less learning in the long run.

As high schools seek new ways to help students regain academic ground lost during the pandemic-related schooling disruptions, a new guidance report from the EDResearch for Recovery Project suggests administrators overhaul the structure of their programs.

“The crazy thing is that pre-pandemic, most credit recovery had shifted to online classes,” said Robert Balfanz, the director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, who was not associated with the report but who has studied credit recovery. Yet the number of high school students who failed remote, mostly online, courses skyrocketed in the past two years.

“Now we have a bunch of kids who failed in a virtual environment and schools are sort of telling them, well, the recovery for that is go take a class online,” Balfanz said. “But I understand that’s all [schools] have got, right? It’s hard to create a whole new credit recovery strategy out of whole cloth, while you’re in a pandemic recovery year.”

Here are five ways administrators can improve their online credit recovery programs, according to Carolyn Heinrich, a professor of public policy, education, and economics at Vanderbilt University and author of the study:

1. Target students who are most likely to benefit

Online recovery programs allow students to move through the material at their own pace and time, which can be helpful particularly for students who need scheduling flexibility, such as those who are also working or caring for family members outside of school. But studies find those who struggle the most may find the courses least helpful.

In one 2019 study, Heinrich and her colleagues found students who were farthest behind academically, and those who had weak study and class management skills were more likely to be set back rather than boosted by online credit recovery. In particular, researchers found students who read below grade level spent less time actively engaged in their online credit programs. These students were more likely to benefit from in-person credit recovery instead.

Upperclassmen and students with a strong sense of autonomy were more likely to improve their reading and math credits and GPAs using online recovery programs, Heinrich found.

2. Limit classes to individual subjects

The most effective programs gathered small groups of students focused on a single subject for recovering credit. This allowed a mix of live and asynchronous instruction and more individual help from teachers.

One eight-year longitudinal study found many districts had limited funding for credit recovery, which often led to programs in which students in the same classroom studied a variety of different subjects at the same time. Students in these large “computer-lab classes” tended to have in-person teachers acting more as technology support than content instructors. Students in multi-subject classes were less engaged and spent less time on task in their programs.

Districts must use 20 percent of their federal pandemic recovery funds to help students regain academic ground lost during the pandemic, which can include credit recovery. The report noted that using funding to split larger groups into smaller, subject-specific groups can allow students to get more individualized help from both their teachers and fellow students.

3. Actively monitor student progress

In a separate study of more than 200 districts’ credit recovery programs, Nat Malkus and his colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute found most did not institute safeguards to prevent students from using loopholes to complete a course without actually mastering content.

For example, nearly 70 percent of districts studied required no minimum seat-time, and 60 percent allowed students to skip coursework if they passed a pre-test—which in many cases, was less difficult than what they would have taken in a standard version of the class. And more than 80 percent of districts did not use their own district assessments to ensure students were actually learning material covered in a commercial online program before awarding credit.

“To prevent credit recovery from doing more harm than good, districts need to establish clear policies focused on increasing rigor rather than just flexibility,” Malkus concluded.

4. Coordinate teacher planning between credit-recovery and general education

In an ongoing research partnership between the Los Angeles Unified school district and the American Institutes for Research, teachers reported that they needed professional development in both using online tools and supporting students’ special education needs in virtual environments.

Only 48 percent of teachers in the study told AIR researchers that commercial online recovery materials met all students’ learning needs, but teachers said they did not feel as though they had enough training to adapt programs for special needs.

Teachers in credit recovery classrooms should have access to students’ individualized education plans and administrators should provide time for them to coordinate with special education and English-language teachers.

5. Choose vendors with flexibility

Most districts outsource their programs to commercial credit recovery programs. Heinrich and others said districts should ensure both that their vendors will provide flexibility to adapt curriculum to district needs and that the schools and students have the technology capacity to use the programs, particularly at home.
For example, Heinrich noted many vendors provide written translations, but no language support for students who are English-language learners.

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