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Credit recovery programs: full report

“Summer school offered after school.” That’s the way Bill Fennessey describes credit recovery. Fennessey is a site coordinator of BlairLEARNS, an after-school credit recovery program at Blair IB Magnet School in Pasadena Unified School District in California. (Perrenoud 2009).

Established six years ago, BlairLEARNS is only one of the many new credit recovery programs established in the wake of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Enacted in 2001, NCLB required states to set goals for improving high school graduation rates, and judges schools in part based on their progress to do so. Credit recovery programs sprung up 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 through various online options. This worthy effort nevertheless raises many questions for those involved in education simply because so little is known about credit recovery programs. And the first question is a question of definition. We can all easily imagine summer school, that un-air-conditioned institution of American education – but what exactly is “credit recovery”?

A quick summary


  • Credit recovery is a reform byproduct of NCLB.  There is no federal definition of credit recovery, although credit recovery classes are supported by several government funds.  The most common definition is simply “a structured means for students to earn missed credit in order to graduate.”
  • Credit recovery programs can be administered at the school, district, or state level.  It is a highly decentralized, unregulated, and under-researched dropout prevention initiative.  There is little information on enrollment numbers or effectiveness. So far, credit recovery programs have not been evaluated for rigor or equal access, either.
  • Credit recovery classes are offered as fully online courses, as blended online/in-person instruction, or as strictly in-person instruction. Credit recovery is the fastest growing area of online learning.
  • Proficiency-based credit recovery, rather than time-based credit recovery, is on the rise. Re-earned credits are documented on student transcripts in a variety of ways, if at all, and admittance to credit recovery classes is equally subjective. 
  • Some are concerned that financial pressures on schools are generating the push toward credit recovery programs.


Defining credit recovery

Defining a “credit recovery” program is increasingly difficult, due to the skyrocketing proliferation of different programs. Notably, there is no federal definition of “credit recovery” available, although the federal government supports credit recovery programs through Title I, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT), the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA), and other funding programs.

Similarly, there is no coherent definition emerging among states that cite credit recovery programs in statutes or administrative code. According to the Education Commission of the States, policy definitions of “credit recovery” run the gamut from “counseling students on graduation expectations” to spelling out the essential components of locally-administered credit recovery programs (Zinth 2011). One of the more specific definitions available is in the North Carolina State Board of Education’s 2011-12 Policy Manual, which says, “The term ‘credit recovery’ will be used to refer to a block of instruction that is less than the entirety of the Standard Course of Study for that course… The length of credit recovery courses shall be dictated by the skills and knowledge the student needs to recover and not be a fixed length of seat time” (Beamon et al. 4). Credit recovery is most commonly defined, however, as simply a structured means for students to earn missed credit in order to graduate from high school. Some details:

  • 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. Oftentimes, priority is given to older students.
  • As of today, most credit recovery programs take place in high school, as compared to traditional remediation efforts, which can begin in elementary school.
  • Credit recovery programs are decentralized; even within a district, some schools may opt to participate while others may not.
  • While the number of district-initiated online learning programs is unknown, “credit recovery appears to be the leading driver” (Wicks 2011).

Breakdown of the different programs

The types of credit recovery programs range from regular classroom learning to online studies. Students are often given a choice of programs.

Fully online. Students can recover lost credits through fully online curricula, where all learning is done online. This online curricula 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:

  • Kentucky Virtual School’s credit recovery classes last nine weeks.
  • The maximum allowable length per class for Wisconsin’s Virtual School is 12 weeks.
  • For Florida Virtual School, one regular semester-long class is expected to be completed in 18 weeks, with a flex time of about nine extra weeks. Many states model their virtual schools after Florida’s and use Florida’s courses.
  • In Georgia, though students should only be enrolled in one credit recovery course at a time, there is no minimum time period and courses are open enrollment, so a student can enroll in another class immediately after completing one. There is no limit to the number of credits a student can earn during one semester.

Students do not receive diplomas from the third-party online course providers, but from their local school districts.

Blended. Blended-learning credit recovery opportunities 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 best practices, the degree to which the online component is integrated into the curriculum 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.

How credits are earned

The wide variation in course lengths mentioned above exposes one of the biggest debates about credit recovery: should credits be regained on the basis of seat time requirements, or on competency measures alone? For many credit recovery programs, the answer is the latter. According to the Education Commission of the States (ECS), thirty-six states already allow proficiency-based measures for earning credits. These measures include allowing students to take fully online or blended courses, conduct independent studies, or complete internships as a proxy for (though sometimes in addition to) taking statewide mastery tests.

The oversight of how credits are earned varies widely, as some states require all districts to make proficiency-based credit available, while others allow districts to decide. For internship and independent studies, individual school administrators often hold complete authority over adjudicating credit. Additionally, some states allow students to earn full course credit by passing a statewide exam, but others let each district decide what equals proficiency. Some have claimed that this loose oversight lets districts grant credit too liberally (Otterman 2011). But prominent dropout prevention organizations such as the America’s Promise Alliance promote these types of credit recovery programs and deem seat-time requirements archaic.

And the push towards proficiency-based credit recovery is gaining ground. This spring, Ohio repealed its requirement that a student receive 120 hours of in-class instruction in order to receive credit in a high school course. Ohio state law now requires that each district allow “flexible credit” opportunities.

How is credit recovery different from an alternative high school?

Today, distinguishing between a credit recovery program and an alternative high school is oftentimes impossible as they share structures and missions, prompting some to merge. Students may take one or more classes at an alternative high school to regain credits, but still graduate with a diploma from their home school. For example, in Colorado’s Jeffco Public Schools district, seniors can participate in the “Graduate on Time” program, where they attend their home school regularly and take up to one credit at an alternative school in the evenings during the school year.

The two dropout prevention strategies are different in that alternative high schools support students getting either a GED or a high school diploma, while credit recovery programs only do the latter. In addition, alternative high schools are designed primarily for students who need to learn in a non-traditional setting.

Most of the districts surveyed by Lawrence and Trautman that had credit recovery programs also had separate alternative education programs (2005).  Finally, credit recovery often restricts admittance to older students, even though ninth grade remains the most predictive year of degree acquisition.


Credit recovery: Pros and cons

So, from what we know, is the proliferation of credit recovery programs good or bad? Here are some of the pros and cons:


  • Advocates contend credit recovery allows struggling students to direct their own learning, a claim which might entice the 47% of dropouts who cite uninteresting classes as a major reason for leaving.
  • Credit recovery classes tend to be proficiency-based, with pre-test features, for instance, which allow students to skip content if they can demonstrate mastery. This side-steps repetitious material and allows students to focus on areas of difficulty.
  • Credit recovery programs are supposed to enable students to work at their own pace. Self-paced options could reach the 43% of dropouts who believe they missed too many days and could not catch up, or the 35% who say that “failing in school” was a major factor for dropping out (Bridgeland et al. 2006).


  • Because credit recovery is largely a local effort, there is little data available on the rigor or effectiveness of the programs. Skeptics wonder if credit recovery programs are helping students learn, or greasing the pipeline to graduation.
  • The certification required for credit recovery teachers or proctors varies from district to district, as does the degree of subject specialization. For example, with Georgia’s Virtual School’s “teacherless, any time, any pace model,” individual schools must provide “a monitor/facilitator for these courses…this expense is not covered by the GA DOE” (COX). This could affect the rigor of the program.
  • Many critics fear that credit recovery classes lacking rigor entice students and discourage them from working to their potential in class the first time around.
  • States or districts mandate how grades are recorded on students’ transcripts: as a complete replacement, additional grade, average, or other alternative, raising questions of fairness for different student bodies.  The North Carolina State Board of Education took steps toward uniformity and fairness in the fall of 2011, when all credit recovery classes, regardless of the program type, will receive a final PASS/FAIL grade. (Beamon et al. 2010). In Georgia’s Virtual School, a second grade must appear on the student’s transcript to indicate the credit recovery course credit.

But more than the pros and cons are the overwhelming number of things we don’t know about credit recovery. Because the concept is so varied and its implementation so malleable, there is little sense of overall numbers, no evaluation, and no oversight. Credit recovery is a subject where there are far more questions than there are answers.

Why we don’t know enough about credit recovery

No definitive numbers. The sheer number of students participating in credit recovery is hard to come by because there is little federal oversight, and states do not typically aggregate the number of district and school-level offerings. Companies that offer credit recovery often do not disaggregate the number of credit recovery students, because they provide the same online class regardless of intended use (original credit, credit recovery, supplemental, remedial, etc.). One such company, Apex Learning, estimates that 50% of its enrollments are for credit recovery (T. Citterman, personal communication, Aug. 8, 2011). Other measures give us similarly hazy estimates: Aventa Learning, another for-profit courseware supplier, experienced a fivefold increase in its credit recovery sector since 2008 (Horan 2010 2), and Sloan Consortium reports that credit recovery is the most popular type of its fully online courses, while elective courses are the most popular type of blended courses (Picciano 2010)

No evaluation. For the first time ever, in 2011 the federal government awarded a research grant to analyze credit recovery. The study will look at the impact of an online summer credit recovery course for first-time ninth-graders who fail their second semester of Algebra I. The grant will compare the impact of the online course to a traditional in-class summer school course through randomly assigning such ninth graders to one of the two courses. The high schools participating are 20 high schools with high rates of Algebra I failure within the Chicago Public Schools system (Heppen et al. 2011). Otherwise, there has been no evaluation of credit recovery’s impact.

No oversight. States and the federal government have conducted no comprehensive or longitudinal cost-benefit analysis to credit recovery. That said, as of January 2011, the Minnesota Department of Education announced plans to review the costs associated with its 24 certified k-12 online learning providers that receive state aid. It’s unclear whether the review will look at the cost-effectiveness of credit recovery classes specifically.

What we don’t know about credit recovery

Is there equal access? Since many credit recovery programs are offered solely online, rural students’ lack of Internet access could affect their access to credit recovery, as well. The Federal Communications Commission’s 2011 update of the Rural Broadband Strategy report states “Even within rural areas, areas that lack access to broadband tend to have a population with less education and lower income levels than rural areas with access to broadband” (FCC 2011). Rural communities are overwhelmingly ignored in education research, but the availability and effect of web-based and credit recovery programs on rural students’ education needs to be examined.

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. Districts lose state funding when students drop out or opt into alternative programs outside the district. While district savings vary enormously (different newspaper reports, for example, put computer software and online classes' cost at anywhere from $135 to $1200 per student per credit), 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. Online education companies, like Plato, Aventa Learning, and Apex Learning have begun focusing on this burgeoning market. Credit recovery coursework now occupies $500 million out of a $2 billion digital education market (Sawyers 2010).

Further questions to consider

This paper has outlined what we know about credit recovery programs, but more importantly, it has highlighted what we don’t know. School boards, educators and policymakers should also consider the following questions in order to determine the effectiveness of, and best practices for, credit recovery programs.

Questions for current programs:

  • What kind of students are currently in credit recovery programs?
  • How do students who re-earn missed credits perform in the next class they take in the subject, as opposed to students who passed the class the first time?
  • How do students do overall after taking credit recovery programs? Do they continue to struggle, or do they stay on track for graduation?
  • When do students who need credit recovery start falling behind? Are there particular areas of the curriculum where students need credit recovery the most? If so, what kind of collaboration among schools (for example, elementary to middle, or middle to high) could change that?
  • Do students in credit recovery programs graduate at a different rate than the rest of the student body?
  • If there are different credit recovery programs in the district, does one type show better results than the rest? Why?

Questions for further research:

  • What student profile best fits the different type of credit recovery program? 
  • How do states compare:
    --In terms of providing access to the manifold forms of credit recovery? 
    --In terms of admittance policies?
    --In terms of credit recovery grade documentation?
    --In terms of oversight over district and school-level administrators?
  • How are rural students accessing credit recovery opportunities in comparison to students in more internet-friendly school districts?
  • What is the failure rate for credit recovery classes as compared to traditional classes, original credit online classes, and for full-time students attending alternative high schools?  And what is the retention rate for students enrolling in credit recovery classes, by program type?
  • 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 of more credit recovery classes faring in postsecondary education or employment, as compared to GED recipients or students who earn secondary degrees through traditional high school coursework, as well as dropouts?

To find out more about how to collect, use, and understand these types of data at the school level, visit our Data First site at 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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