Corrected: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the chief strategy officer for the America’s Promise Alliance. Her name is Carmita P. Vaughan.
Interest in online credit-recovery courses continues to surge, prompting some policy experts and educators to consider whether traditional rules requiring students to spend a certain number of hours in the classroom, rather than simply demonstrate their proficiency in the subject matter, are increasingly outdated.
At least three large urban school districts—New York City, Chicago, and Boston—have recently rolled out or soon will roll out programs for online credit recovery. That means that students who have failed courses in high school can earn credits for those courses by making them up through online coursework. District policies vary in whether the students take the classes at an actual school or can do the coursework at home or in another setting.
Sales in the credit-recovery line of courses created by the Anthem, Ariz.-based Aventa Learning, one of several companies or nonprofit organizations typically tapped by schools to provide online courses, increased eightfold from 2008 to 2010, according to Gregg Levin, the vice president of sales for the company.
Representatives from the Florida Virtual School, a statewide public school based in Orlando, and the Seattle-based Apex Learning Inc. say they’re noticing increasingly high demand for the use of their regular online courses for credit-recovery purposes.
The increase in credit-recovery programs is being fueled by pressure from state and federal accountability systems to increase graduation rates, educators say. But that’s not the only pressure that is bringing heightened awareness of the need to step up the numbers of students who are leaving high school with a diploma, they say.
Irvin L. Scott, the high school academic superintendent for the 56,000-student Boston school system, said he would be “completely untruthful” if he didn’t acknowledge that his district’s decision to launch a new online credit-recovery program was spurred by an interest in improving graduation rates to meet regulations for the federal No Child Left Behind Act. But he said that educators also feel the need for the U.S. education system to be more competitive internationally.
“We have to do a better job. It’s not just No Child Left Behind,” Mr. Scott said. “It’s China and Dubai.”
With a graduation rate in Chicago of 55 percent, it’s not only NCLB, but also a crisis in education, that is spurring the Chicago public schools to expand credit-recovery programs, said Paige A. Ponder, the acting head of the office of student support and engagement for the 409,000-student district.
‘Seat Time’ Rules
In light of that kind of growth, some advocates of online credit recovery feel states have been slow to create policies that support such learning.
Carmita P. Vaughan, the chief strategy officer for the America’s Promise Alliance, a Washington-based nonprofit partnership with a key mission of improving high school graduation rates, contends that some states’ “seat time” requirements are a hindrance to the effective use of credit-recovery programs. With such requirements—long a mainstay of eligibility for a high school diploma—students must spend a certain amount of time in class, typically 120 hours, for each high school credit earned.
Many online credit-recovery programs, however, consider a student to have passed a course if he or she has demonstrated mastery of the subject matter. Passing is not based on how much time he or she spent online.
“The notion that students should have to sit in a chair for a certain amount of time when it’s only a certain aspect of algebra they didn’t get baffles me,” Ms. Vaughan said.
Kathy Christie, the chief of staff for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, agreed that states should create policies that enable students to earn high school credits for mastery of skills, not just seat time.
“To work off of a proficiency base allows kids to accelerate. It allows them to make up for bad decisions,” she said. “It keeps the eye on the prize for kids: ‘These are the standards. These are the things I need to know.’ ”
The commission has a database, last updated in 2007, that says 36 states have provisions that permit students to earn high school credits that are “proficiency based.” While that might mean that students can earn a credit by showing mastery in an online course, it also may permit them to get credit through other means, such as passing a foreign-language proficiency test or participating in an internship.
Credit for Mastery
Ms. Christie contends that many of those proficiency-based provisions are on the books but not implemented in most school districts in any single state.
South Carolina traditionally has required that students spend 120 hours in class to earn each high school credit, but the state increasingly is not sticking to that policy in all situations, said Valerie E. Harrison, the deputy superintendent for standards and learning for the state education department.
In the past, when a student failed a course, he or she had to make up all of that seat time, Ms. Harrison said. But in recent years, the state has given students credit for seat time even for courses they failed, though in a credit-recovery program they still don’t get credit for a course until they show mastery of its material, she said.
In addition, she said, the state has a new policy that permits schools to waive seat-time requirements for students who are taking some courses for the first time, if those courses have been found to be aligned with the state’s academic standards and have been put on a list approved by the South Carolina Department of Education.
“We realize we need to look at ways to make sure students are able to graduate, stay in school, and support them in any way. Sometimes traditional ways of learning don’t work for some students,” Ms. Harrison said.
‘Holes’ in Research
The surge of interest in online credit-recovery programs has also come despite scant research on the programs’ effectiveness. While studies have been conducted on online learning in general, they haven’t been conducted on the effectiveness of online learning specifically for the use of credit recovery, researchers say.
“We’re interested in comparing so-called high-quality online courses for credit recovery with taking a traditional class,” said Jessica B. Heppen, a senior research analyst for the Washington-based American Institutes for Research. “There are definitely holes in the research in K-12 [education].”
Russell W. Rumberger, an education professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and an expert on dropout prevention, said in an e-mail message that he isn’t aware of any research on the effectiveness of credit-recovery programs. He added that “it surely is warranted.”
“I question the effectiveness of these programs,” Mr. Rumberger said, “but without data, it is hard to know.”
Big-city districts are expanding the use of online learning for credit recovery, meanwhile, because it seems to work to get some students to earn enough credits to graduate.
The Chicago school system plans to enroll 2,500 to 3,000 students in online credit-recovery courses this summer, up from 1,000 last summer, according to Ms. Ponder. For the first time, students may complete the courses outside of school, she said. About 2,500 students took part in online credit recovery during the 2009-10 school year, she said.
Ms. Ponder said that while the district doesn’t have research specifically on the outcomes of online credit-recovery programs, it does have research on Chicago students showing that “every single credit in the freshman year is incredibly important.”
In Chicago, research shows that a student who earns four credits in his or her freshman year is far less likely to graduate than one who has earned six credits, she said. That has prompted the district to target freshmen who are lacking one or two credits for its credit-recovery programs.
Seniors’ Last Chance
The Boston school district has been using online credit recovery successfully to get seniors who lack a credit or two to make those up during the summer after their senior year, according to Mr. Scott. He said 200 seniors graduated during the summer of 2009 using online credit recovery, up from 90 seniors the previous summer.
Mr. Scott explained that seniors always had the option of making up lost credits in traditional summer school classes, but that many didn’t bother.
With the online credit-recovery programs, he said, the students do the work at home, though they must visit a school site to take tests. Certified teachers are available at those sites for face-to-face help.
The New York City Department of Education, meanwhile, is poised to introduce online credit-recovery options for students this coming school year in 10 schools. The 1.1 million-student district has approved Apex Learning, Aventa Learning, the Florida Virtual School, the Austin, Texas-based CompassLearning Inc., and the Herndon, Va.-based K12 Inc. to provide the courses.
“The point of all of these innovations is to reach the most difficult, highest-needs students,” said Matthew Mittenthal, a spokesman for the city’s education department.
In contrast to the approaches in Chicago and Boston, New York City will have the courses delivered in classroom computer laboratories with certified teachers present in the room.
Special coverage of district and high school reform and its impact on student opportunities for success is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 2010 edition of Education Week