Without Rules, Credit Recovery Is Just an ‘Easy Ticket to Graduation,’ Report Says

By Catherine Gewertz — November 21, 2019 4 min read
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Too many districts that use a lot of credit recovery to help students to finish high school don’t impose the right rules to ensure that those catch-up courses are high quality, according to a report published Thursday.

The study, by American Enterprise Institute researcher Nat Malkus, urges school districts to closely examine their rules and practices for credit recovery. Questions about these courses are relevant to tens of thousands of schools and millions of students, since most U.S. high schools offer them as a way for students to bounce back from a bad grade or earn credit for failed classes.

Malkus and his team interviewed leaders in about 200 districts that had large shares of students in credit recovery last spring, and found that many have put a priority on flexibility and access for students. But most haven’t built in safeguards to make sure the courses are good.

Judging districts’ policies was tricky, Malkus wrote, because they have sound reasons for maximizing access to credit-recovery classes. For instance, 46 percent let students take a credit-recovery course without failing a course first. This can offer support to students before they stumble into a major failure.

About half of the districts let students replace their original bad grade with a better grade from credit recovery, another policy aimed at giving students another chance to improve. Six in 10 districts let students skip the coursework if they pass a “pre-test.”

‘Too Easy for Students’

Nearly 7 in 10 of the districts don’t impose seat-time requirements, meaning that students can earn credit in a fraction of the time their peers spend in regular classes. One district official told the research team: “It’s too easy for students. ... They can finish a semester in about two weeks.”

Eighty-three percent of the districts that use credit recovery heavily don’t use their own tests to see if students mastered the material. Instead, they accept the tests embedded in the credit-recovery programs they use. Whether “passing” constitutes as rigorous a level of mastery as passing the school’s own tests is an open question.

“Taken individually, these policies could be justifiable for certain districts’ circumstances and needs,” the report said. “Taken together, however, the pattern of highly expansive and flexible district policies offers little comfort about the rigor of credit recovery.

“To prevent credit recovery from doing more harm than good, districts need to establish clear policies focused on increasing rigor rather than just flexibility. By taking a stronger stand on rigorous credit recovery policies, districts have a better chance of ensuring these programs provide quality instruction, not just an easy ticket to graduation.”

See also: U.S. Young Adults’ Literacy and Numeracy Skills Aren’t Improving

The study is the latest in a flurry that aim to elucidate the murky turf of credit recovery in the wake of a series of scandals that allowed many students to use these catch-up classes to get diplomas without earning them.

Last year, Malkus wrote a report that suggested that schools can boost their graduation rates—which they are judged on in public accountability reports—by enrolling a lot of students in credit recovery. Another study, earlier this year, showed schools increasingly relying on online credit recovery to improve their graduation rates.

The pressure to improve graduation rates, and role credit recovery plays in that, came through in the new AEI report. One of the district officials interviewed by the AEI team said: “Since No Child Left Behind and [the push for] ‘100 percent graduation rate,’ we are caught between seeing that students graduate or really learn the material.”

Graduating without having mastered coursework is likely to backfire on students later, though, and it’s more likely to affect the neediest students. Studies from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and AEI have both found that high-poverty, high-minority schools are the ones most likely to have large shares of students in credit-recovery classes.

One Approach to Quality Control

The new AEI report offers an example of one way that a built-in system can try to ensure rigor in credit recovery. It comes from the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The organization’s eligibility director wrote about it last year on the Fordham Institute’s blog.

About 10 years ago, the NCAA began noticing disturbing patterns on student transcripts: failing grades, or even Cs and Ds, were replaced with As and designated “CR,” meaning credit recovery. The NCAA looked into the trend and saw that the programs varied a lot in quality.

In one case, a student finished a biology course with an A- after spending four and a half hours in a credit recovery class. In another, a student finished a semester of Algebra I in one minute, and got an A.

The NCAA decided to set its own criteria. In 2010, it issued its rules: for credit-recovery classes to be accepted, the programs must involve “ongoing and regular teacher-initiated interaction,” have a “defined time period for completion,” and students must typically complete the whole course without skipping content.

By prioritizing flexibility over quality, school districts “run the risk of reproducing cases such as the student who passed Algebra I in one minute and having them pass unnoticed,” Malkus wrote in the new AEI report.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.