Online credit recovery may make graduation too easy

Jay Mathews
Columnist April 22, 2012

Russell Rumberger, a scholar with an encyclopedic grasp of the dropout issue, has doubts about the latest, hottest cure — online credit recovery. That means letting struggling students take courses on a computer without the annoyances of listening to a teacher or doing homework.

Online credit recovery accounts for about half of all instruction in the $2 billion online education industry, with great potential for good, many educators say. But Rumberger, director of the California Dropout Research Project at the University of California at Santa Barbara, says he knows of a student who got a D in English, so took an online course that required reading only one book — “To Kill a Mockingbird” — and about 12 hours of work on a computer over one week.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years. View Archive

The student received an A for that one-semester credit. “Online credit recovery offers students a quicker and more flexible way to earn high school credits,” said Rumberger, author of “Dropping Out: Why Students Drop Out of High School and What Can Be Done About It.” But, he said, “there is generally insufficient evidence and accountability to ensure that the online courses are as rigorous and impart as much learning as traditional courses.”

At an online credit recovery program run by D.C. schools last summer, 59 students passed and six failed in an assortment of English and social studies courses by reading lessons and answering multiple choice questions on computers. Hundreds more are doing credit recovery now in Washington and other local districts.

But, as Andrew Brownstein reported in the Harvard Education Letter, “no one is evaluating how students fare once they leave credit recovery and head to the next course in the sequence.” He noted that the D.C.-based American Institutes for Research has a $3 million grant to compare Chicago students randomly assigned to online credit recovery and traditional summer school. Those results are years away.

D.C. schools have long looked for excuses to give diplomas to students who have not mastered the material. Woodrow Wilson High School social studies teacher Erich Martel exposed enough suspicious diplomas to force an audit by the D.C. Office of the Inspector General. But teachers still told me of many lackluster students suddenly and mysteriously cleared for graduation just before the big day.

Imagine their principals’ thinking: This kid has talent and drive that might get her a job, but she can’t stand school. She lacks just a few credits. Better to send her off with a diploma, even if undeserved, than force her to drop out.

Online credit recovery is also open to abuse. Supervisors have to be vigilant. At a Denver school, Brownstein said, credit recovery students were “using smartphones to find test answers on the Web.”

Big education companies are making money on this. Beleaguered school superintendents know an online course costs less per student than a class where the teacher, not an online program, presents the material and gives exams. Students can learn by themselves without the embarrassment of sitting in a classroom with younger students. They take quizzes and tests online, and move to the next unit when they get a passing score, often about 70 percent. Their supervising teacher intrudes only when they can’t reach that mark after repeated attempts.

Ian Roberts, principal of the Academies at Anacostia, a D.C. public high school, says online credit recovery has helped his students boost their English and math scores. D.C. graduation rates are also going up, possibly for the same reason.

But veteran educators such as Montgomery County school board member and former principal Michael A. Durso worry that this may be another quick fix that doesn’t last.

The real problem, Durso says, is failure to devote the time and resources to teach all students how to read well enough to succeed in school. That’s hard to do, so for now we are going to see what sitting them down in front of a computer will get us.

To read previous columns by Jay Mathews, go to washingtonpost.com/jaymathews.

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