How Effective Are Online Credit Recovery Programs?

Credit recovery programs in the U.S. have proliferated rapidly since the enactment of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), particularly in states that are home to a large number of urban schools with high dropout rates (Balfanz and Legters 2004).

Although definitions vary somewhat, credit recovery is any method by which students can earn missed credits in order to graduate on time (Watson and Gemin 2008). Online credit recovery is a common form of these programs, but others include mixed online/in-person instruction, and in-person instruction (McCabe and Andrie 2012). At least three major school districts – Boston, Chicago, and New York City – offer credit recovery programs, as do several states, including Missouri and Wisconsin. Private companies such as Plato, Pearson, Apex, and Kaplan have also tried to fill this niche by offering to charge between $175 and $1,200 per student per credit. Online credit recovery represents approximately half of all instruction in the $2 billion online education industry.

Yet, despite the rising presence of online credit recovery programs, there exists scant evidence as to their effectiveness in increasing high school graduation rates, or their impact on other outcomes of interest.

For one thing, the total number of students enrolling in online credit recovery is difficult to measure, due to limited federal oversight and poor data collection on the part of states and providers. For example, companies that provide online credit recovery might collect data on their students, but they are often unable to separate credit recovery students from their peers taking online classes for non-recovery purposes (McCabe and Andrie 2012).

Second, there are different ways to gauge the impact on students in these programs. Some programs define success in terms of course completion, while others measure it as a decline in course drops. Still others base their assessment on standardized evaluation, grades, graduation rates, and a decrease in student absences (Archambault et al. 2010).

Third and most importantly, the evidence on these programs’ actual impact, regardless of how it is measured, is mostly anecdotal. In New Hampshire, for instance, the Manchester School District reported that 91% of students enrolling in online credit recovery completed the courses. In Boston, after online credit recovery programs were implemented, graduation rates rose by 3.1 percent over four years.

There is, however, not much empirical evidence beyond these anecdotes. And, to reiterate, the groundwork for such analyses remains elusive, as districts and private providers have not collected adequate data on indicators such as attendance, grade improvement, knowledge enhancement, and graduation rates for students in online credit recovery students.

In a relatively recent positive sign, in 2011, the National Center for Education Research (NCER) awarded a large research grant to the American Institutes for Research to compare Chicago students randomly assigned to online credit recovery and traditional summer schools. The results of this study have yet to come out. This is the first research grant awarded by the federal government to assess credit recovery.

Online credit recovery has quite possibly opened the door to more opportunity for many students who otherwise would not have graduated. But there is no solid evidence either way. In addition, these programs might have the unintended consequence of inducing students to avoid the rigor of the traditional school setting and opt for what they think is the easier method (online credit recovery), which is typically shorter in duration and entails less supervision. This can lead to graduation rate inflation and a decline in educational quality.

The most important next step, therefore, is for school districts and private providers to collect student-level data in order to assess the impact of online credit recovery programs. Until then, it is uncertain whether these programs truly help enhance students’ knowledge and improve educational outcomes the way they were intended. 

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