Virtual School Meanderings

July 22, 2021

Is credit recovery up to the task?

Filed under: virtual school — Michael K. Barbour @ 12:04 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

While not specifically the focus, as much of the credit recovery in the US these days happens online, this is a fairly relevant item for us these days.

July 21, 2021

Welcome to Chalkbeat’s national newsletter! Matt Barnum, Kalyn Belsha, and Sarah Darville here, working to help you make sense of efforts to improve education across the country. 

The big story


A teacher leans over to help a student who is studying at the computer.


A startling rise in failing grades during the pandemic was one of the most worrying signs that students were struggling.

Now, high schools in particular face a challenge: figuring out how to help those students recover academically without falling off track for graduation.

For many schools, the go-to method is online credit recovery. But it has major downsides. The biggest? Several studies raise serious questions about whether students actually learn the content this way, finding that it’s not uncommon for a student to guess or Google their way through.

“Doing credit recovery well is the hardest thing that we can do in education,” said Nat Malkus of the American Enterprise Institute, who has studied the spread of credit recovery programs across the country.

But educators and researchers say now is the moment to make credit recovery better. Here’s how.

Also from the national desk

Big education funders seek “breakthrough ideas.” Backed by $200 million from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Walton Family Foundation, a new organization is seeking to develop ideas to dramatically improve student outcomes. Its first projects will focus on assessments and the connection between executive functioning skills and math. The ambitions are for “moonshots,” though as one observer told us, “We have heard that promise made for literally over a century and yet we have not seen it happen.” Read more.

Local stories to watch

  • At least 18 full-time virtual schools have opened in Michigan since the start of the pandemic. The state is seeing a virtual learning boom, as online charter schools target families who prefer online learning and school districts open virtual programs to compete. Detroit approved a new virtual school this week.
  • Masks will be mandatory in Memphis classrooms in the upcoming school year. The decision makes Shelby County Schools one of the only districts in the state planning to require masks. Vaccination rates remain low in the state, which is seeing COVID cases increase as the more contagious Delta variant spreads.
  • Black and Latino boys in Chicago saw dramatic attendance dips last year. Attendance in the second quarter was only 77% for Black boys in high school, a drop one researcher called “really shocking.” It’s the latest evidence that the pandemic may have hit boys especially hard in Chicago and nationwide.
  • Summer school staffing remains a scramble in New York City. After the city expanded summer programming, more than 200,000 students signed up. Now, some nonprofits are relying on a rotating cast of substitutes and an all-hands-on-deck approach to keep students engaged.

Photo by Aaricka Washington / Chalkbeat

Chalkbeat Logo
Twitter Logo Twitter Logo
Did you receive this email from a friend?

Sign up to receive Chalkbeat newsletters.

Have a question or a tip for our journalists?

You can reach us at

Twitter Logo
Chalkbeat, Inc. · PO Box 300434 · Brooklyn, New York 11230 · USA

November 16, 2020

AIR – Assessing the Efficacy of Online Credit Recovery on Student Learning and High School Graduation

I wanted to post a series of items that the folks at the American Institute of Research have been posting recently.  The first is the release of four briefs around the project entitled “Assessing the Efficacy of Online Credit Recovery on Student Learning and High School Graduation.”


Image of high school students at a computer

School districts across the country are increasingly using online courses to expand credit recovery options for high school students who need to recover credit after failing a course. However, the growing use of online credit recovery for high school students has considerably outpaced the research. As concerns mount over how much students learn in online courses, and as questions arise about how to best implement online credit recovery, there is a critical need for rigorous evidence about the use of online credit recovery for high school students.

AIR, in partnership with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), received a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences to study online credit recovery. The study focuses on first-year high school students who failed Algebra 1 or ninth-grade English (English 9) and retook the course during the summer before their second year of high school.

Within each participating school, the study used a lottery to determine whether each student took the school’s typical teacher-directed class or a class that used an online learning model. The online classes used a curriculum supplied by an online provider and included an in-class teacher whose role was to monitor students as they worked through the course and to provide supplemental instruction targeted to students’ needs. The credit recovery classes for the study took place during summer 2018 and summer 2019 in 24 LAUSD high schools.

Listen to Jordan Rickles discuss the project on the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute’s podcast >>

The study has two main goals:

  1. Provide rigorous evidence about the blended-learning course’s effects on student outcomes compared with a standard teacher-directed course.
  2. Describe how the blended-learning course provides students with different instructional experiences compared with a standard teacher-directed course.

The project will produce a series of research briefs that discuss the findings regarding the relative effect of the online credit recovery classes compared with the teacher-directed classes on students’ near- and longer-term outcomes, how the online and teacher-directed classes were implemented, and a cost analysis.


Brief 1 | Online Credit Recovery: Study Overview

The first brief provides an overview of the study, including descriptions of the study’s online learning model, participants, and implementation and study outcome measures.

Brief 2 | Online Credit Recovery: Initial Findings for Algebra 1

The second brief highlights key findings about implementation and student academic outcomes at the end of the summer term for Algebra 1 credit recovery classes.

Brief 3 | Online Credit Recovery: Initial Findings for English 9

The third brief highlights key findings about implementation and student academic outcomes at the end of the summer term for English 9 credit recovery classes.

Brief 4 | Online Credit Recovery: Resources and Costs

The fourth brief highlights key findings about the differences in the resources and costs between the online and teacher-directed credit recovery courses.

Technical Supplement

A forthcoming technical supplement will provide more details about the study sample, data, measures, and analyses.

January 6, 2020

The 100 Worst Ed-Tech Debacles of the Decade [K-12 Online Learning Mentions]

Back on New Year’s Eve Audrey Watters posted an entry on her blog entitled “The 100 Worst Ed-Tech Debacles of the Decade.”  If you haven’t read it yet, I would encourage you to review all 100 items.  Below, I have simply copied and pasted those items that I believe are specific to the field of K-12 online learning (note that the language can get a bit salty in the items pasted below).

95. “Roaming Autodidacts”

“[The] literature [on online education] was preoccupied with what I call ‘roaming autodidacts’. A roaming autodidact is a self-motivated, able learner that is simultaneously embedded in technocratic futures and disembedded from place, cultural, history, and markets. The roaming autodidact is almost always conceived as western, white, educated and male. As a result of designing for the roaming autodidact, we end up with a platform that understands learners as white and male, measuring learners’ task efficiencies against an unarticulated norm of western male whiteness. It is not an affirmative exclusion of poor students or bilingual learners or black students or older students, but it need not be affirmative to be effective. Looking across this literature, our imagined educational futures are a lot like science fiction movies: there’s a conspicuous absence of brown people and women” — Tressie McMillan Cottom, “Intersectionality and Critical Engagement With The Internet” (2015)

82. “The End of Library” Stories (and the Software that Seems to Support That)

If there was one hate-read that stuck with me through the entire decade, it was this one by Techcrunch’s M. G. Siegler: “The End of the Library.” It was clickbait for sure, and perhaps it came too early in the decade — this was 2013 — for me to be wise enough to avoid this sort of trollish nonsense. You can learn anything online, Siegler argued. (You can’t.) The Internet has “replaced the importance of libraries as a repository for knowledge. And digital distribution has replaced the role of a library as a central hub for obtaining the containers of such knowledge: books. And digital bits have replaced the need to cut down trees to make paper and waste ink to create those books.” (They haven’t.)

Libraries haven’t gone away — they’re still frequently visited, despite dramatic drops in public fundingMore and more public libraries have started eliminating fines too because libraries, unlike Techcrunch writers, do care to alleviate inequality.

But new technology hasn’t made it easy. Publishers have sought to restrict libraries’ access to e-book lending, for example, blaming libraries for declining sales. And libraries have also struggled to maintain their long commitment to patron privacy in the face of new software — e-books and otherwise — that has no such respect for users’ rights.

72. Chatbot Instructors

“Imagine Discovering That Your Teaching Assistant Really Is a Robot,” The Wall Street Journal gushed in 2016, documenting an experiment undertaken at Georgia Tech in which a chatbot called “Jill Watson” answered questions in a course’s online forum. “Students didn’t know their TA was a computer,” the university’s press release stated, seemingly unbothered about any ethical issues that might raise.

(Consent? It matters.)

Watson, as the name might suggest, was built using the IBM Watson “AI” technology. College of Computing Professor Ashok Goel and his team used the 40,000 some odd questions that students had asked in previous versions of the course to build out Jill’s knowledge-base. “One of the secrets of online classes is that the number of questions increases if you have more students, but the number of different questions doesn’t really go up,” Goel said. “Students tend to ask the same questions over and over again.” But instead of redesigning his course or materials so that students didn’t have to ask these questions, he built a chatbot and called it a TA.

It’s not just the teaching assistant labor that chatbots are seeking to replace. As Inside Higher Ed recently reported, they “have started to infiltrate every corner of higher ed — from admissions to student affairs, career services and even test prep,” arguably making institutions that are struggling to treat people humanely even less human.

59. Clayton Christensen’s Predictions

In 2008, Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn published Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns and predicted that the growth in computer-based instruction would accelerate rapidly until, by 2019, half of all high school classes would be taught over the Internet. NopeWrong.

In 2013, Christensen told investor Mark Suster that, in 15 years time, half of US universities would be bankrupt. As with K-12 education, he believed (believes) that online education would provide the “disruptive innovation” to force traditional schooling out of business. In 2017, he doubled down on his prediction — half of colleges and universities would close in a decade. I have set a Calendar reminder for 2028. We can check back in then for the final calculation. Meanwhile, Phil Hill has run the numbers on what higher ed closures actually look like, with visualizations that helps underscore that the vast number of these were to for-profit institutions — and there just aren’t enough of those left to make up the “half of all colleges” claim.

As Jill Lepore reminded us in her scathing critique of Christensen’s “gospel of innovation,” “Disruptive innovation is a theory about why businesses fail. It’s not more than that. It doesn’t explain change. It’s not a law of nature. It’s an artifact of history, an idea, forged in time; it’s the manufacture of a moment of upsetting and edgy uncertainty. Transfixed by change, it’s blind to continuity. It makes a very poor prophet.” But it’s the sort of propheteering that hopes if you repeat a story enough times, that everyone — taxpayers, administrators, politicians, pundits — will start to believe it’s the truth.

33. Online Credit Recovery

In 2017, Slate published a series of stories on online credit recovery programs — classes offered to students who needed to quickly make up missed credits in order to graduate high school on time: “The New Diploma Mills,” it called them. These classes were “fast, isolating, and superficial,” the series reported, describing the experiences of one student who, after failing her junior year English class, was able to make up the course online in 2 days. It told of another student who paid his friend $200 to take a course for him.

Schools are pressured to use these online options — products offered by companies like Apex, Edmentum, Odysseyware, and Edgenuity — in part because of their desire to boost graduation rates. And efforts to crack down on providers offering “bad online courses” were often countered by lobbying from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which “has made expanding online learning — unfettered and in all of its forms — one of its priorities.”

28. Computer-Based Testing Blunders

The new assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards were to be administered via computers, prompting as I noted above, a great deal of expenditure on new devices. But the new mode of testing caused a great deal of headache too. 2015 marked the year that states implemented the tests associated with the standards, and many struggled with that very implementation. That’s not a surprise, as a COSN survey that year found educators pleading that “We’re Not Ready for Online Tests.”

There were worries about how the move to online testing might affect scores. There were worries that there weren’t enough computers for test-taking. There were worries about kids’ abilities to type. There were worries about Internet connectivity, particularly in poor and rural schools. And many of the worries were well-founded. The problems weren’t just with district infrastructure; there were problems with vendors’ websites. There were technical problems in MinnesotaFloridaColoradoNew JerseyNevadaNorth DakotaMontanaTennessee, and elsewhere. Some states blamed the vendors and some blamed school IT and some states blamed “hackers.” The Common Core tests in one New Jersey school district were postponed as its entire computer network was held hostage by ransomware in exchange for 500 Bitcoins, approximately $124,000 at the time.

The technical problems were so bad in some states that they prompted concerns about the validity of the scores and about states’ ability to meet the federally-mandated levels of test participation (numbers that exacerbated too by the “Opt Out” movement). Several states accused their testing vendors of breach of contract, and several switched vendors, hoping that would fix the problem.

Spoiler alert: it did not.

27. Online Preschool

Arguably one of the best investments we could make in education would be to fund universal preschool. High quality universal preschool, staffed with well-paid professionals. High quality universal preschool, staffed with well-paid professionals in a brick-and-mortar setting and not online. But online preschool, according to some education reformers, is poised to “change the way rural America does early education.” One program, Upstart, “mixes adaptive software for preschool-aged kids, along with child development training and check-ins for parents. The program focuses on building pre-literacy skills, such as sound blending and letter names, and is designed to be used 15 minutes a day for a total of 75 minutes per week. Currently Upstart is used by about 19,000 families in Utah and in smaller pilots in about 15 other states,” Edsurge reported earlier this year. Many experts have caution against these programs, arguing for example that “Online ‘preschool’ lacks the concrete, hands-on social, emotional and intellectual educational components that are essential for quality learning in the early years. Further, online preschools are likely to exacerbate already existing inequalities in early education by giving low-income children superficial exposure to rote skills and ideas while more privileged children continue to receive developmentally sound experiences that provide a solid foundation for later academic success.”

These sorts of stories that promote high tech “solutions” for certain communities always make me wonder why we don’t opt instead to build out local capacity rather than insisting that the only alternative is education-from-elsewhere online.

23. OPMs and Outsourcing

Despite all the hullabaloo this decade about the importance of offering online classes, many schools opted not to develop the capacity internally to do so, but rather to outsource that function to a vendor. In 2017, The Century Foundation issued a blistering report on these online program managers (OPMs) titled “The Private Side of Public Higher Education.” Although universities have long outsourced some of their services to third-party providers — food services and parking enforcement, for example — OPMs could pose significant risks to higher ed, the report argued, as “the functions of OPMs are closely linked to the core educational mission of these public institutions. As a result, the quality of the services provided by OPMs has a direct bearing on the quality of the school itself and the ability of these institutions to fulfill their mission to train students and prepare them for the workforce.”

The involvement of OPMs in the establishment and growth of online educational opportunities at public institutions exposes consumers to the financial interests of decision-makers, interests that would not exist if exclusively public or nonprofit institutions were involved in providing these distance learning programs. Driven by the desire and need to make money for investors or owners, those to whom executives are held accountable, these companies may prioritize profit over the interests of online students, to whom they owe no loyalty, financial or otherwise.

As Phil Hill observed, as for-profit universities and MOOC providers stumbled this decade, several sought to become OPMs instead. (That is to say, there are really just a handful of pivots you can make in ed-tech: become an OPM or become an LMS or try to market yourself as both.)

19. Platforming Education

In his review of Nick Srnicek’s book Platform CapitalismJohn Hermann writes,

Platforms are, in a sense, capitalism distilled to its essence. They are proudly experimental and maximally consequential, prone to creating externalities and especially disinclined to address or even acknowledge what happens beyond their rising walls. And accordingly, platforms are the underlying trend that ties together popular narratives about technology and the economy in general. Platforms provide the substructure for the “gig economy” and the “sharing economy”; they’re the economic engine of social media; they’re the architecture of the “attention economy” and the inspiration for claims about the “end of ownership.”

In his book, Srnicek posits that platforms are poised to become the fundamental business model of our digital world — key to the new economy, clearly, but also key to political and social systems (and how these will be shaped under the control of the powerful technology industry). And certainly the goal for many technology companies — education and otherwise — has been to become a platform: that is, to become a key piece of digital infrastructure whose business model rests on the extraction of data.

In many ways, the learning management system is the prototypical education platform. The LMS has long positioned itself as an “operating system,” of sorts, for higher education, one that certainly predates any talk of a “platform economy.” But LMS providers spent the decade buying up a vast number of other companies so as to extend the functionality of their original product — companies that offered offered administratively adjacent features and would facilitate the extraction of more data from students’ and professors’ activities online than just what could be gleaned from the student information system.

(The LMS isn’t the only platform in education to be sure. Perhaps the most dominant and dangerous is Google — which nears the top of this list.)

17. Test Prep

Year after year after year after year, the most well-funded startups in education technology were those offering tutoring and test prep. Neither of these are progressive trends. These can exacerbate educational inequalities as more affluent families can afford to give their children extra academic support (or at least some extra tips and tricks on how to do well on standardized tests).

To counteract some of these inequalities — in test prep and in the testing itself — the College Board partnered with Khan Academy in 2015 to provide free online SAT prep courses (after years of insisting that test prep would actually make no difference in how well one performed on the exam). One year later, the head of the College Board David Coleman boasted “Never in my career have I seen a launch of technology on this scale that has broken down the racial divisions that so haunt this nation — never.” And in 2017, the College Board released data that showed “20 hours on free Official SAT Practice on Khan Academy is associated with an average score gain of 115 points, nearly double the average score gain compared to students who don’t use Khan Academy.” One problem though: not all students practiced the same amount, and students with highly educated parents tended to spend more time doing so. As Matt Barnum and Sarah Darville write in Chalkbeat, “The College Board’s research doesn’t show whether Khan Academy truly caused the score increases. Perhaps the students who used Khan most were particularly motivated or were using other study aids.”

Perhaps test prep will never undo the inequalities baked into the system. Perhaps, just perhaps, it was never really meant to.

9. Virtual Charter Schools

According to recent data from the Department of Education (as reported by Education Week), “half of all virtual charter high schools had graduation rates below 50 percent in the 2016-17 school year. Thirty-seven percent of schools had graduation rates at or above 50 percent. Graduation data for the remaining 13 percent of schools was masked for various reasons, such as to protect student privacy. There are about 163 virtual charter schools educating over 30,000 seniors nationally as determined by the adjusted cohort graduation rate, according to federal numbers.” In some states — Indiana, for example — not a single virtual charter school has had a graduation rate over 50% for the past four years.

One of the largest studies of online charters, published by Stanford in 2015, found that students in these schools had less contact with a teacher in a week than students in traditional, brick-and-mortar schools have in a day, and their academic progress was so poor that it was almost like not going to school at all.

And yet, despite the abysmal performance of virtual charters, states have struggled to hold these (largely) for-profit endeavors accountable. There were the odd lawsuit, to be sure. K12 Inc, one of the best known virtual charter chains, reached a $8.5 settlement with the state of California in 2016 after it was accused of false advertising and inadequate instruction. In Indiana, two virtual charters were accused of “counting toward their enrollment thousands of students who either never signed up for or completed classes,” collecting almost $10 million in state funding along the way. In Ohio, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, or ECOT, claimed to serve some 15,000 students, but state officials found the virtual charter school was significantly inflating its numbers and said the school owed back $80 million in funding. (ECOT was forced to close in 2018.)

But in spite of the lousy education and unethical business practices, profits at virtual charters are up. K12 Inc, for example, announced this summer that for the first time its history, its revenue had topped $1 billion.

3. Venture Capitalism

Billions of dollars of venture capitalism has been funneled into education technology this decade. And this list demonstrates what we have to show for it.

2. (Venture) Philanthropy

Billions of dollars of (venture) philanthropy has been funneled into education technology this decade. And this list demonstrates what we have to show for it.

In many ways, philanthropy and venture capital worked hand-in-hand — the former set the policy agenda for ed-tech and the latter fueled the entrepreneurs and stoked the market for it.

The Gates Foundation has continued to have an outsized influence in shaping public policy (even though Gates has admitted that his initiatives haven’t had a great track record).

He has been joined this decade by other tech billionaires — by Mark Zuckerberg, for example. The Facebook founder made his first, high profile education donation in 2010, announcing on Oprah, with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Newark Mayor Cory Booker at his side, his plans to give the city’s schools $100 million. In 2012, Zuckerberg launched the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, he and his wife Priscilla Chan’s philanthropic company. And it is, to be clear, a company, not a foundation — a business structure that gives Zuckerberg more control in investing in for-profit companies and in political causes, as The New York Times explained.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos also announced a philanthropic effort (that is, when he’s not spending his billions on funding space travel).His new philanthropic effort would fund and operate “a network of high-quality, full-scholarship, Montessori-inspired preschools in underserved communities.” “We’ll use the same set of principles that have driven Amazon,” Bezos wrote in a note posted to Twitter. “Most important among these will be genuine intense customer obsession. The child will be the customer.”

These philanthropists’ visions for the future of education and education technology mirror their own businesses: the child will be the customer. The child’s data will be mined. The child’s education will be personalized.

Again, check out the full list at

November 25, 2019

New Report – Practice Outpacing Policy? Credit Recovery In American School Districts

A fair amount of coverage given to online forms of credit recovery in this report.


Practice outpacing policy? Credit recovery in American school districts

American Enterprise Institute

Key Points

  • Although many reports have raised concerns about the quality of credit recovery programs, little is known about the policies governing these programs.
  • Our research team surveyed 200 school districts across the country about the policies governing their credit recovery programs, including when credit recovery is offered, whether it is administered online, and whether the credit recovery grade students earn replaces their original failing grade.
  • This data collection revealed many districts’ policies allow lots of flexibility for student access and assessment with relatively little constraint. Taken individually, these policies could be justifiable, but taken together, they leave credit recovery programs ripe for abuse.
  • To prevent credit recovery from doing more harm than good, districts need to establish clear policies specifically aimed at ensuring these programs provide quality instruction, not just an easy ticket to graduation.

Read the PDF.

Executive Summary

In recent years, many journalistic exposés and research reports have raised concerns about the quality of credit recovery programs, which are avail­able in about 75 percent of US high schools and serve about 6 percent of students. Stories relay how schools from Los Angeles to Washington, DC, have used the system of makeup courses to boost graduation rates, and some have even reported having separate require­ments for student-athletes seeking National Colle­giate Athletic Association scholarships. Among these reports, however, are often lapses in details about the actual district policies governing credit recovery. While a handful of studies have examined the qual­ity of specific programs, it is hard to tell whether they broadly represent credit recovery programs or are instead merely examples of the worst of them.

The purpose of this report is to take a closer look at credit recovery policies in American public school dis­tricts across the country. Our research team contacted a nationally representative sample of 200 districts that had high participation rates of credit recovery in the spring and summer of 2019 and asked questions about the policies governing their credit recovery pro­grams—including when credit recovery is offered, whether it is administered online, and whether the credit recovery grade students earn replaces their original failing grade.

This data collection, which yielded an 84 percent response rate, found that 95 percent of responding districts offer credit recovery online and 87 percent offer it year-round. Over half (54 percent) do not require failing grades to participate, and 51 percent replace the original grade with the credit recovery grade. Moreover, 68 percent of responding districts do not have seat-time requirements, and 61 percent allow students to skip lessons by taking pretests, thus allowing students to complete credit recovery courses at their own pace.

Taken individually, these policies could be justifi­able for certain districts’ circumstances and needs. Taken together, however, the pattern of highly expan­sive and flexible district policies offers little comfort about the rigor of credit recovery. To prevent credit recovery from doing more harm than good, districts need to establish clear policies focused on increasing rigor rather than just flexibility. By taking a stronger stand on rigorous credit recovery policies, districts have a better chance of ensuring these programs provide quality instruction, not just an easy ticket to graduation.


After a decade of education policy heavily focused on college and career readiness and boosting postsecondary enrollment, the primary approaches to gauging high school quality remain narrowly focused on two available measures: test scores and high school graduation rates. Test scores have become increasingly unpopular due to a sense that high-stakes tests drive unhealthy competition and detract from other valuable school programs and for their stubborn resistance to change. But graduation rates are easy to love because they do not have such obvious negative consequences on schooling—and because they keep going up.

Between 2011 and 2017, US graduation rates rose from 79 to 84 percent, an all-time high and the fifth record in a row since the federal government redefined how graduation rates are calculated and reported.1 Those record numbers have naturally drawn a lot of attention and praise—and deservedly so when they reflect that school systems are reducing dropouts and increasing numbers of students who leave ready for college or a career. However, like high-stakes tests, pressure to improve graduation rates can create per­verse incentives for schools. This makes knowing how schools are making them rise as important as know­ing that they are rising.

As graduation rates have been on the rise, so have credit recovery programs. These programs provide makeup courses, often involving online instruction, that allow students who have fallen behind or failed a high school class to earn credits and get back on track to graduate without having to retake the origi­nal course. Of course, makeup courses are not new, as summer school and repeating courses are long-existing options most adults remember from high school. But efforts to build quicker and more flexi­ble programs to get lagging students back on track to graduate have gained momentum in recent years—so has the market for online services that facilitate them. The growth of credit recovery programs over time is difficult to assess with available data, but the pro­grams have spread far and wide. In 2016, about three in four US high schools offered some kind of credit recovery program, and about 6 percent of high school students participated in one.2

The rise of credit recovery programs has brought more attention, and scrutiny, around their execution and effectiveness. As David Loewenberg notes in Edu­cation Next, increased government and private invest­ments to expand tech in schools has catalyzed the boom of a “vast and lucrative education-technology market,” which includes an array of online credit recovery providers for districts to choose from.3 Such programs do help more students graduate; Loe­wenberg gives the example of Newburgh, New York, which saw its graduation rate rise from 66 to 78 in just five years after implementing online credit recovery.

But dramatic jumps like this are not necessarily something to celebrate. In Newburgh’s case, a dis­trict attorney investigation revealed that faculty were using the program to fudge the numbers, including artificially changing grades and awarding credit to absent students.

Alarming accounts are increasingly common, with headlines such as “‘Fail Me’ School’s Kids Can Take Year’s Worth of Classes in 6 Weeks,” “School Saves 150 Failing Students with Quickie Online Courses,” and “CMS Launches Investigation into Credit Recov­ery Center Allegations.”4 Article series from Slate and the New York Post have highlighted countless other examples.5 In some cases, credit recovery has been part of major scandals, such as in 2017, when 15 per­cent of graduates in the District of Columbia received necessary credit through credit recovery despite never taking the original classes.6

Despite alarming anecdotes, the fact remains that little is known about the inner workings of credit recovery programs or their effectiveness. What are the actual policies governing these programs, and who is responsible for enforcing them? The limited informa­tion we have suggests that the answers vary widely across states and school districts. After all, these policy decisions generally fall to school districts, which typ­ically establish credit recovery programs and ink con­tracts with online vendors. And different districts have different student populations, schedules, state require­ments, budgets, and online programs to choose from. These factors allow for a wide range of credit recovery programs, as Loewenberg concisely lays out.

There is also tremendous variation in what district and state credit-recovery policies, standards, and reg­ulations look like—if they exist at all. . . . Some pro­grams are condensed face-to-face classes, others are completely online, and still others are “blended,” in which students work in a computer lab with support from a certified teacher. In some districts, courses are graded on a pass/fail basis, while in others students can earn scores up to 100 percent. Some districts cap the number of credit-recovery courses a student can time at one time, while others don’t. Some districts require students take paper-and-pencil assessments proctored by a teacher, while others allow testing to be completed at home on a computer. Some online classes are used to make up parts of a course, while others are designed as a wholesale replacement.7

Despite the good reasons to establish credit recov­ery programs and the strong reactions to programs that make the papers, it remains difficult to paint a clear picture of the credit recovery landscape in America. That difficulty stems from districts’ strong incentives to improve graduation rates and push credit recovery far ahead of not only research but also the policy guiding these programs. The purpose of this report is to survey districts about the actual credit recovery policies in place in American public school districts.

Read the full report.


1. National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data, “Table 1. Public High School 4-Year Adjusted Cohort Gradua­tion Rate (ACGR), by Race/Ethnicity and Selected Demographic Characteristics for the United States, the 50 States, and the District of Columbia: School Year 2015–16,” October 25, 2017,

2. The US Department of Education’s National Survey on High School Strategies Designed to Help At-Risk Students Graduate shows significantly higher numbers: 89 percent of US high schools reported offering a credit recovery program, and school principals estimated that an average of 15 percent of high school students participated. However, because principals’ responses were recorded on a 100-point online slider, which is poorly suited to gauging small percentages, the participation rate estimates are likely overstated. See US Department of Education, “National Survey on High School Strategies Designed to Help At-Risk Students Graduate,” https:// I rely instead on the descriptive statistics from the Civil Rights Data Collection in this report and my previous report due to its more conservative estimates, size, currency, and administrative (rather than survey) data.

3. David Loewenberg, “A Digital Path to a Diploma,” Education Next 20, no. 1 (Winter 2020), digital-path-to-diploma-online-credit-recovery-classes/.

4. Susan Edelman, Lorena Mongelli, and Bruce Golding, “‘Fail Me’ School’s Kids Can Take Year’s Worth of Classes in 6 Weeks,” New York Post, August 5, 2015,; Susan Edelman, “School Saves 150 Failing Students with Quickie Online Courses,” New York Post, July 19, 2015, school-saves-150-failing-students-with-quickie-online-courses/; and Dedrick Russell, “CMS Launches Investigation into Credit Recov­ery Center Allegations,”, August 2, 2017,

5. Zoe Kirsch, “The New Diploma Mills,” Slate, May 23, 2017,; and Susan Edelman and Bruce Golding, “DOE Official Was Informed of Effort to Graduate Failing Students,” New York Post, August 10, 2015,

6. Alvarez & Marsal, “Final Report District of Columbia Public Schools Audit and Investigation,” Office of the State Superintendent of Education, January 26, 2018, 20DCPS%20Graduation%20and%20Attendance%20Outcomes%20-%20Alvarez%26Marsal.pdf.

7. Loewenberg, “A Digital Path to a Diploma.”

May 27, 2019

Report Notice – Does Online Course-Taking Increase High School Completion And Open Pathways To Postsecondary Education Opportunities?

I wanted to bring to folks attention this report that came across my electronic desk last week, which is by some of the same authors in the article from earlier today.

Does Online Course-taking Increase High School Completion and Open Pathways to Postsecondary Education Opportunities?

Recent substantial increases in high school graduation rates have been linked anecdotally to the expansion of online course-taking for credit recovery. Online course-taking that supports high school completion could open new opportunities for postsecondary education pursuits. Alternatively, poorer quality online instruction could diminish student engagement and learning and discourage persistence toward graduation and further education. Using fixed-effect models and inverse probability weighting with regression adjustment with data from an eight-year longitudinal study of online course-taking in high schools, we find positive associations between online course-taking in high school and credits earned, high school graduation, and college enrollment. Our results leave open the question of whether online course-taking supports learning that will lead to longer-term postsecondary education and labor market success.

online instruction, credit recovery, high school completion, postsecondary outcomes
Education level
K-12 Education
Program and policy effects

Suggested citation

Carolyn J. Heinrich, Jennifer Darling-Aduana. ( ). Does Online Course-taking Increase High School Completion and Open Pathways to Postsecondary Education Opportunities?
Next Page »

Blog at