College & Workforce Readiness

Does Too Much Credit Recovery Lead to Inflated Graduation Rates?

By Catherine Gewertz — September 17, 2018 5 min read
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A new study adds fuel to the growing controversy about high school credit-recovery programs, finding that the schools that rely most heavily on them produce bigger increases in their graduation rates, even though their students perform poorly on state achievement tests.

The study, published Monday by the American Enterprise Institute, lands amid increasing worry about the role credit-recovery programs play in inflating high school graduation rates.

The national high school graduation rate reached an all-time high of 84 percent in 2016. But a pileup of anecdotes about schools and districts cutting corners has raised doubts about how many students truly deserved diplomas.

Credit-recovery programs exist in three-quarters of the country’s schools and serve 1 in every 13 high school students, the AEI study estimates.

Some Schools Rely Heavily on Credit Recovery

Nat Malkus, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, used several sets of federal data in his study to produce a troubling portrait of schools that rely heavily on credit recovery to help students complete high school.

The study divides its 15,500 schools into five categories based on how big a share of their students participate in credit recovery. About two-thirds have minimal, low or no participation.

But among the remaining one-third are schools Malkus dubs the “peak” credit-recovery schools: 1,230 schools where nearly 29 percent of students, on average, are using credit-recovery to stay on track. That’s 8 percent of all U.S. high schools, and 39 percent of all students in these catch-up courses.

That means that a lot of the credit-recovery work is concentrated in a small number of schools. Malkus found that the level of school poverty and minority enrollment track closely with the intensity of credit-recovery participation.

Those dynamics put equity front and center: The students who tend to be at greatest risk for not graduating are the ones who will be most affected by credit recovery—for better or for worse.

In “peak” credit-recovery schools, students are slightly more likely to have fallen short on success markers like taking gateway math courses or taking AP classes or tests, and more likely to have been suspended, held back a grade, or chronically absent.

They’re also less likely to have scored proficient on state tests.

But even those markers haven’t gotten in the way of big increases in their graduation rates, the AEI report finds. While the peak credit-recovery schools have graduation rates that are a few points lower on average than all schools, the AEI study finds that they produced much bigger gains in those rates from year to year, and over several years.

“That schools with the highest credit-recovery participation also have the highest graduation-rate increases should raise serious concerns that these programs are devaluing diplomas and leaving students unprepared to negotiate the worlds of college or careers,” the study says.

A handful of states emerge, also, as particularly reliant on credit recovery for their graduation rates. The AEI report shows the District of Columbia—which has been reeling from its own graduation-rate scandal—leading the pack, with 12 percent of all high school students enrolled in such programs. Arkansas, California, Rhode Island, and South Dakota weighed in with 10 percent each.

Heavy participation in credit recovery doesn’t necessarily indicate that schools are offering poor-quality programs, however. The AEI study points out that some credit-recovery programs offer a good second chance for students who’ve fallen off track.

Leaders of the District of Columbia schools believe that it’s important to give students many ways to be successful as they get ready for life after high school, and “rigorous, meaningful” credit-recovery courses represent one of those options, district spokesman Shayne Wells said in an email.

The district is creating a new system to monitor the quality of those classes, and is drafting a new policy on their use that will be circulated soon for public comment, he said.

Ensuring Quality of Credit Recovery

The tricky part is that it’s hard to tell which programs are good and which ones aren’t, and so far, research sheds little light on this question of quality.

That leaves schools with a dilemma.

In schools with bigger populations of disadvantaged and academically struggling students, the AEI report says, it makes sense that they want to provide every opportunity possible for students to catch up and be able to graduate.

“And when done well, credit recovery can provide a beneficial second chance for students while maintaining rigor and standards,” the report says.

“However, doing credit recovery well is difficult, and with anecdotal evidence as a backdrop, the unbridled access and high participation rates found in some schools” can lend themselves to the programs becoming “a second track to graduation, not just a second chance.”

What should be done? The AEI report offers these recommendations:

  • Improve the accuracy of federal data on credit recovery
  • Monitor graduation-rate increases to see whether they accompany increases in test scores
  • Monitor credit-recovery programs and be transparent about the policies that ensure good quality
  • Regularly survey teachers and students about the quality of credit-recovery programs, since federal data don’t capture this information
  • Consider “deterrents” to credit recovery, such as charging fees or making it available only in the summer or on weekends. Getting this balance right could be tricky, Malkus acknowledges in the report. But if credit recovery is too accessible to students, students could be tempted to fail a course and choose the easier alternative, and that can contribute to lower standards schoolwide, he says.

Photo credit: Jennifer Kunz, right, talks with student Maralicia Presha, during a computer class in 2014 in Waco, Texas. Kunz works with at-risk students at the Brazos High School Credit Recovery Center. (AP Photo/Waco Tribune Herald, Rod Aydelotte)

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