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Credit recovery programs: at a glance

“Summer school offered after school.” That’s one definition of credit recovery, a growing movement born out of No Child Left Behind. Credit recovery programs aim to help schools graduate more students by giving students who have fallen behind the chance to “recover” credits through a multitude of different strategies, often online. This worthy effort nevertheless raises many questions for those involved in education simply because so little is known. We can all easily imagine summer school, that un-air-conditioned institution of American education – but what exactly is “credit recovery?”

A partial definition

The most common definition of credit recovery is simply “a structured means for students to earn missed credit in order to graduate.” There is no federal definition of credit recovery, although credit recovery classes are supported by several government funds.  Similarly, there is no coherent definition emerging among states that cite credit recovery programs in statues or administrative code. Different programs allow students to work on their credit recovery classes over the summer, on school breaks, after school, on weekends, at home on their own, at night in school computer labs, or even during the school day. Some programs have mandatory prerequisites, such as a minimum attendance record for the original class, a specific class year, or minimum number of total missing credits, and some do not. Within all the variation, there are three main kinds of credit recovery programs:

Fully online. In these classes, students recover lost credits through online curricula, which can be provided through software from a number of sources: the district or school itself, state-run virtual schools, charter schools, non-profit consultants or for-profit consultants. Typically, there are no face-to-face meetings or opportunities for real-time instruction; work is done at home or in school labs with little to no supervision. Course lengths vary greatly.

Blended. Blended-learning credit recovery programs mix face-to-face and online learning. These courses are usually self-contained and pre-programmed. Instructors, who may be either certified teachers or uncertified proctors, oversee and aid as needed. Other blended online courses also offer real-time interaction with teachers. However, since there are no established practices, the degree to which the online component is integrated varies.

In person. In-person credit recovery programs most closely resemble old summer school classes. The setting is traditional and usually there are no online components. Classes take place after school or at night a few times a week during a semester, over the summer in concentrated and abbreviated sessions, or on weekends.

Questions about credit recovery

Unfortunately, credit recovery is a subject where there are far more questions than there are answers.  The wide variation in program structure could be a good thing, encouraging creative solutions to the dropout problem. However, since so little is known, we cannot identify what works and what doesn’t. Because the concept of credit recovery is so varied and its implementation so malleable, there is little sense of its impact and effectiveness, leaving many in education with questions. Here are a few of the most commonly raised:

Is credit recovery effective? Because credit recovery is largely a local effort, there is little data available on the rigor or effectiveness of the programs. Proponents contend credit recovery allows struggling students to direct their own learning and work at their own pace, a claim which might entice the large proportion of dropouts who cite boring classes or falling too far behind as reasons for dropping out.  Skeptics wonder if credit recovery are helping students learn, or greasing the pipeline to graduation.

How long should a class take? One of the biggest debates in credit recovery centers around how credits are earned. The oversight of how credits are earned varies widely, as some states spell out exactly how credit should be earned and recorded, and others let individual districts or principals decide. The result is wide variation. For instance, some states have credit recovery courses that last nine weeks; others allow 18 weeks or more; others set no minimum time period.

More and more, credits are awarded on proficiency measures rather than seat time. According to the Education Commission of the States (ECS), thirty-six states already allow students to earn credits through proficiency-based measures. These measures include allowing students to take fully online or blended courses, conduct independent studies, or complete internships as a proxy for (sometimes in addition to) taking statewide mastery tests.

How should credits be recorded? Credits can show up on student transcripts as a complete replacement, additional grade, average, or other alternative. The differences raise questions of fairness, because the same work could garner more or less credit for students in different districts.
Is there equal access? Rural students’ lack of Internet access could affect their access to credit recovery, as well, since many credit recovery programs are offered solely online.

Are some schools shepherding students toward credit recovery classes based on financial imperatives alone? Because of the current financial burden on states, many are concerned that part of the push toward credit recovery may be financial. While district savings vary enormously, computer-based credit recovery programs are known to be more cost-effective than hiring teachers to support students in small groups or one-on-one settings.

What to do while we don’t know enough about credit recovery

Credit recovery is growing. Credit recovery coursework now occupies $500 million out of a $2 billion digital education market (Sawyers 2010), and online education companies, like Plato, Aventa Learning, and Apex Learning have begun focusing  on this burgeoning market.
While we await better data, school board members, educators, and policymakers should  ask these questions  in order to determine what is most effective – and beneficial – for their students:

  • Who is taking credit recovery programs?
  • How far behind are students in credit recovery programs? Do they catch up after they’ve taken them or continue to fall behind?
  • When do students needing credit recovery start falling behind?
  • What is the failure rate for credit recovery classes as compared to traditional classes?
  • How do students who re-earn missed credit in credit recovery courses fare on statewide exams, as compared to students who passed the class the first time?
  • How do students who earn diplomas after taking one or more credit recovery classes fare in postsecondary education or employment? How does this compare to nationally-available data on GED recipients, traditional graduates, and dropouts?

For more information on how to gather, understand, and use this data, visit the Center’s Data First Web site (www.data-first.org). 

Posted January 26, 2012. Copyright Center for Public Education.
This report was researched by Julie McCabe, Policy Research Intern at the Center for Public Education, and co-authored with Rebecca St. Andrie, Managing Editor of the Center for Public Education.

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