Summer school has gone digital, and viral—which means carefully choosing a quality vendor to provide courses to students anxious to graduate.
In the view of Chester E. Finn Jr., President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, in Washington, D.C., there’s something particularly American about recovering high school credit.
"This is a country of second chances, and there are all kinds of reasons why a person might have missed a credit the first time around," says Finn, who wrote a blog entry—"The Credit-Recovery Scam"—on the subject, tracing what is popularly known as credit recovery from its earlier incarnation (summer school) to its newest one, online credit-recovery courses produced by software companies chosen by districts.
"[Students] might have been sick, they might have had a baby. There are also all sorts of reasons why people regret their earlier decisions and think that maybe they should have gotten that credit after all,"says Finn.
But Finn worries about summer school’s newfangled cousin, the online course, particularly because it has arrived on the scene just as schools’ graduation rates are coming under increasing scrutiny. Approximately 88 percent of districts around the country offer some form of credit-recovery courses or programs, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And an American Institutes for Research (AIR) report providing preliminary data on a study of the efficacy of online programs in a range of Chicago high schools says that as many as 75 percent of U.S. districts have students enrolled in online courses. Credit-recovery programs are reportedly one of the fastest-growing areas of educational software.
"The question for me is quality control," Finn says. "You know the old arms-control motto: 'Trust but verify'? Well, I think it applies in this case." The key point "is whether the learning that takes place in the second-chance option is equivalent to the learning that didn’t take place in the first-chance option," he adds. "Or is this becoming a way to evade rigor and accountability expectations?" Online credit-recovery horror stories abound on the Web, from suspicious improvements in high schools’ graduation rates attributed to administrators turning a blind eye to cheating on online courses, to questionable course content earning students a semester’s credit for less than a day’s work.
But Finn and others say there is little "usable data" so far about the effectiveness of online courses as compared with the traditional face-to-face alternative. The Fordham Institute itself is looking to provide some of this data. It is considering conducting its own study of the efficacy of online courses using data from Florida, where test scores are reportedly separated out by whether or not the test taker took a credit-recovery course in the subject. At the same time, the AIR investigators’ preliminary data from Chicago shows that students felt the online course was more difficult and that credit-recovery rates were higher in face-to-face courses.
To understand how various districts are experiencing credit-recovery programs, we interviewed the principal investigator in the AIR study as well as officials in districts in Texas and Massachusetts with successful programs. We also looked at a district in Iowa that took a very different approach (see “The Breakfast Club Revisited”).
Boston public schools began looking at online credit-recovery programs following the release of Strategic Planning to Serve Off-Track Youth, a 2007 Parthenon Group report, says Janice Manfredi, senior program manager for the district’s high school network.
"That was a deep dive on the dropout information in Boston Public Schools," she says. "They categorized students in four large buckets. The largest, and what we would refer to as the low-hanging fruit, was this group of kids, about 25 to 27 percent, who passed MCAS [the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test, given in 10th grade] but were somewhere between one and four courses short of graduating.”
"There was both a four- and a five-year cohort measurement," Manfredi continues. "We identified those students in May, and then we ran a summer program that began the day after school ended and culminated in an August 26 graduation. That first year we graduated 89 students out of about 280 or 290. That became the model."
Some students took to the new technology right away, but most needed more time. “Over time, the students gain confidence in their ability to self-direct their learning," Manfredi says. "They experience some success."
Many of the kids were surprised with their success, Manfredi says. “The history of a lot of our students is that they’ve failed courses multiple times. This changes that for them. And I think that has been the key for those students who just sort of sit down and realize, ‘I got an 80 on that test. I know the material.'"
That is not because the online courses are easy, Manfredi emphasizes. The district specifically settled on Apex Learning, its current software provider, in part because of concerns that previous software had not been rigorous enough.
“The advanced algebra course in Apex is more than we cover [in a traditional course],” Manfredi says. “It's more than what MCAS required us to cover. So I think the response to teachers [who have been critical] is, ‘I understand your skepticism, but I’d like you to go take the course and see what you think.’ And their response is usually pretty solid: ‘This is equal to what I would do or more.'"
Contract for Learning
In the Birdville Independent School District in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, director of curriculum and instruction Donna Solley seems equally pleased with Compass Learning Odyssey, the software that the district began using last year to replace a summer school program that had been largely based on seat time.
“If kids failed a math course, they could go to summer school, sit there for six weeks, and get the math credit back,” Solley says. “But when they went to the next course, they weren’t prepared for it, and when they took the next state assessment for math, they did not pass it. So when we really did that gut check, we knew we had dropped the ball with student learning."
The district, which has 23,000 kids, created an online summer school for high school students in which they could earn back credits from two classes; they built new labs and kept them open six hours every day, and they made teachers available if the students needed them. Kids were also allowed to do the work from home as long as they came in for proctored tests. Birdville acquired Chromebooks for those who didn’t have access to computers.
Solley says the district has had 453 high school students enrolled for credit recovery since it started the program in the summer of 2013. To date, 130 credits have been recovered by high school students. Solley says the summer school enrollment “probably” doubled, but the passing rate “did not go down.” To be allowed to take online courses, students sign a contract agreeing to complete the required work in return for remaining in the program.
The program is popular enough that it’s reaching students the district wasn’t reaching before, according to Randy Sumrall, executive director of technology at Birdville. “There was one student who didn’t want to go to school, stayed at home for the most part, got introduced to this program, loved it, and was trying to get to school," Sumrall recounts.
Boston also requires that a contract be signed. "It isn’t an automatic ‘I’m just going to skip [this course] for the rest of the year and I’ll do it in credit recovery,'" says Manfredi. "I think that opens doors we don’t want to open. We talk about attendance. We have a time-on-learning requirement. It’s not that they have to do seat time, but they have to be making progress."
According to David Palumbo, Vice President of Professional Services at Compass Learning, credit-recovery programs by their very nature require a change in approach.
“The notion of credit-recovery solutions is to say, ‘Let’s take a different tack with this,'" says Palumbo, whose company’s products are used in more than 8,000 districts nationwide. “So if I see that in an Algebra I class you really are having problems with reasoning with fractional quantities, when I craft a solution, that’s the first piece I want to hit. Perhaps you don’t have such a problem with part-to-whole, whole-to-part conversions. So I can skip that.
"Focus is important, of course, not only because there may be just a month to complete work that usually takes a semester. "You so quickly lose the mindshare and attention of students in a credit-recovery program if you are forcing them to go back to the basics when they have already mastered them," says Cheryl Vedoe, CEO of Apex Learning, which served more than 435,000 students in over 1.5 million enrollments during the 2012–13 school year.
To narrow in on curriculum, both companies use testing—Compass uses a diagnostic test at the beginning, and Apex employs shorter pretests along the way. Vedoe says it’s often the acceleration that becomes controversial. “We hear comments like, ‘If you’re letting a student accelerate through, how do you know that they know it?'" she says. “What I can tell you is our pretests are rigorous, standards-based pretests, and we have to make the assumption that if a student is capable of mastering it on the pretest, they probably do know it at some level.”
Palumbo says Compass can also monitor the amount of time a student spends on each part of a lesson, giving districts valuable insight into how the student’s interaction with the program went. But as Vedoe points out, there is a limit to what software can do. “A student sitting there with a smartphone with Internet access can do a search, but that same issue exists in a traditional classroom with a textbook, a worksheet, and a written paper test. Issues of cheating are not new. They are not specific to credit recovery. And they are not specific to online courses.”
Early Results Inconclusive
Chicago Public Schools was comfortable with Aventa Learning credit-recovery courses when AIR began working with the district to set up its study of two cohorts of Chicago freshmen trying to recover the algebra credit they’d missed in their first year of high school. So AIR agreed to use that company’s Algebra I course for its study.
Fifteen schools took part in the study in the summer of 2011, and 13 took part in 2012. The schools were chosen because they had the largest number of students who had failed the second semester of Algebra I in the 2009–10 school year and because they were open for summer school but did not have expanded summer credit-recovery programs in place.
A majority of the students recovered the credit (which required a D or better), but the experiences of the students in the online course and the face-to-face course were very different.
"What we saw was that kids found the online course to be harder than kids who took the face-to-face class found their credit recovery," says Jessica Heppen, the study’s principal investigator. “[We also found] that credit-recovery rates were higher in the face-to-face class and, in the second summer, posttest scores were higher also.”
The long-term implications of these results are unclear, Heppen says. “We still have a lot of really interesting work to do to see whether kids who made it to a certain point in the online course by passing quizzes and exams may actually have had some benefits to their knowledge and understanding of second-semester algebra concepts, which was supposed to be what the course was.
”The face-to-face results may also bear a second look, adds Heppen. “We saw face-to-face classes that spent half their time on first-semester algebra content,” she says. “It is very possible that another interpretation is that those teachers were able to meet kids more where they were and figure out what they actually needed, even if the content was from a different course than the one they were there to recover.”
Not surprisingly, Heppen thinks these questions may be at the heart of understanding how best to proceed to help kids seeking to recover credits. “On the one hand, what credit recovery may really mean is just the credential,” Heppen explains. “Does getting the credential back in your pocket motivate you to some degree to keep trying to rack up the credits? Or is it about content recovery? Is it actually about relearning, or learning in a different way?”
In Boston, officials continue to ask similar questions. Of the 441 students who completed one or more courses via the district’s online Credit Skills Recovery Program during the 2010–11 school year and/or the summer of 2011, an outside study by the Donahue Institute at the University of Massachusetts found that 350 had earned a diploma and graduated. Manfredi says the key to the future of the program is to continue to develop options, working to meet kids where they are. Not everyone has benefited from the online courses, and the district is looking for solutions that fit other needs and time frames.
“Dropouts are what happens when the system fails, which we don’t like to look at,” Manfredi says. “So it’s turning that mirror on folks and saying, ‘Look, this is not working—we have to look at what we’re not doing right.’ And to own that and be strong enough to say, ‘Let’s face that and figure out a way it will work,’ is an important piece. We’ve shone a light on that and we’re able to say we need to do something about it."