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Educators are worried about a wave of high school students who are failing classes during the pandemic. A December 2021 McKinsey report predicted that an additional 1.7 million to 3.3 million eighth through 12th grade students might drop out of school in the coming years if historical correlations between chronic absenteeism and high school graduation prove true.
One solution that schools are expected to turn to is something called online credit recovery. When students fail a required high school course, they can retake a prepackaged version of it in a classroom or computer lab, clicking through screens and multiple choice questions to “recover” the credit.
“I believe, absolutely, there will be a massive increase in credit recovery, not just during the pandemic, but continuing for a long time afterwards,” said Kinsey Rawe, senior vice president and general manager of courseware and instructional services at Imagine Learning, a leading seller of credit recovery programs to schools.
Online credit recovery programs were a big driver of improving high school graduation rates, which soared from under 70 percent in 2007 to over 84 percent in 2016. According to the most recent federal data I could find from 2014-15, almost 90 percent of high school principals said they offered online credit recovery in their schools and estimated that 15 percent of their students used these software programs. It made school leaders look good. The online software was a lot cheaper than paying a teacher and graduation rates went up.
But there was a downside. Journalists discovered cheating scandals and evidence of low-quality instructional materials. Researchers documented that students were often learning a lot less through these prepackaged online courses compared to repeating the class with a human instructor. A 2021 study found that students who earned high school diplomas through credit recovery eventually earned lower wages in the labor market. That’s a sign these adults didn’t learn needed skills in school.
Before the pandemic hit, school leaders and researchers were trying to figure out ways to improve online credit recovery.
Los Angeles experimented with adding a certified teacher into the credit recovery classroom. The hope was that the teacher would motivate students to stay focused, help them when they got stuck and supplement the canned curriculum as they saw fit.
During the summers of 2018 and 2019, more than 1,600 students who had failed freshman English or Algebra I were randomly assigned to one of two versions of summer school. Half were run by teachers and half learned through an online course made by Edgenuity, one of the leading providers of online credit recovery courses. (Edgenuity has since been acquired by Imagine Learning.) The online students sat together but learned at their own pace on laptops, with a teacher in the classroom.
In this case, clicking on screens wasn’t an easier path to earn credits. For English, only half of the online students passed the course and made up the credit compared with two-thirds of the students in the traditional teacher-taught class. For algebra, the difference was smaller, with 62 percent passing the online course and 69 percent passing the teacher-taught class.
“We see a big difference with students in the online class less likely to pass,” said Jordan Rickles, a researcher at American Institutes for Research, who conducted the study, which he published in a series of seven briefs during 2020 and 2021.
Rickles and his team also created their own test to measure how much the teens actually learned. Surprisingly, there was no difference. Students learned just as much online as they had learned from a teacher. In algebra, students in both formats got only one third of the questions right.
“Getting a third right on this test is not a good sign,” Rickles said. In English, students in both formats did a bit better, answering half of the questions correctly.
So we have a mystery here. How is it that students are learning the same in both formats but more likely to earn a credit when taught by a teacher? Rickles suspects that sympathetic humans might be passing borderline students who are trying, while the emotionless computer passes students only on the merit of their work.
Teachers told Rickles that it was hard to ask struggling 14- and 15-year-olds to learn online because many of them didn’t have the self-discipline to work independently and focus for long stretches of time. Typically, schools use credit recovery for older high school students during the junior and senior years, when they feel the pressure of needing to pass the course to graduate.
But Los Angeles school administrators wanted to help struggling high school students make up their credits earlier. That’s because research has also shown that students who fail courses in the first year of high school are less likely to graduate on time. With earlier credit recovery, school officials had hoped to keep more students on track with their classmates.
Researchers had intended for the credit recovery to take place during the regular school year, but students’ 10th grade schedules were too packed with other requirements. That forced researchers to conduct the experiment in the summer. (Imagine how thrilled these teens must have been to sit in front of a computer for two and a half hours on a hot summer day for more than five weeks.)
Most students didn’t even get halfway through the online course, Rickles said.
Meanwhile, teachers complained that the reading passages in the prepackaged online course weren’t culturally appropriate for their mostly Hispanic students. In theory, teachers could have assigned supplementary readings that their students might have enjoyed more. But teachers often didn’t understand when or how to override the online lessons.
“The model broke down in practice,” said Rickles. “The intended model was that the teachers wouldn’t just be monitors….We were naive to think that you could just ask teachers to be more engaged. It’s hard to know what to do.”
Rickles said that teachers need training in how to teach students who are at different places in a self-guided course. And they need examples of how to combine in-person instruction with computer time. Rickles believes that the answer may be some sort of rotation, where teachers can work with small groups of students while other students are practicing skills on the computer.
“The research is becoming clear,” Rickles said. “Having a teacher in the classroom is beneficial. Just putting a kid in front of a computer is not the best way to learn. But we still need to develop these blended learning models and evaluate them.”
Cost remains a concern. Credit recovery was originally marketed as a cheaper option. But when you put a teacher in the credit-recovery classroom, it’s a lot more expensive. Los Angeles had to pay teachers their usual salaries, plus the cost of the software license for the online program.
”We definitely wouldn’t come away from this study saying online credit recovery is great,” Rickles said. “It may not be much different than the typical teacher option. Maybe neither of them are good.”
Finding the right way to help failing students is going to become even more important as schools try to repair pandemic damage.
This story about online credit recovery was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.