Columnist

Last week, a link on the website of Loudoun County public schools led to a school page with this explanation of dual enrollment — that’s college courses taken in high school:

“When a student enrolls in a dual enrollment course they are taking a college course and beginning their official college transcript. The grade they receive in class will be the grade on their college transcript.”

They seemed to be saying that if students pass a dual-enrollment course — and those courses are sweeping the country — they will get credit toward a four-year degree. But a 2017 report by Virginia’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission says that’s not always true.

“Not all dual enrollment courses are accepted for credit by four-year institutions” in Virginia, the report said. That’s confusing news to students who are told that a big advantage of dual enrollment over Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses is that they are sponsored by colleges, with credit assured if passed.

Loudoun County schools spokesman Wayde Byard said all dual-enrollment courses in the district award credit at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA). That is not the same thing as credit toward a four-year degree, which is what I think many people consider “college credit” to mean. Four-year college academic departments decide which two-year college credits they will accept.

That fact is hard to find in another Loudoun schools website section that celebrates the district as “the DE leader in Northern Virginia.” Dual-enrollment “credit and a college transcript are guaranteed,” it says. That unqualified promise of credit is repeated six times in the PowerPoint presentation. Only on Page 13 did I find a warning that “not all credit is created equal” and “transfer is up” to the four-year schools. It would have been clearer to say you might not get credit for your hard work.

Adam Lowe, executive director of the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships, said about 2.3 million high school students are taking dual-enrollment courses, which are growing at 7 percent a year. Students and parents should be told more about them. The Virginia legislative commission report reveals several rarely reported drawbacks.

College officials throughout the country say the strength of such courses in high school varies. Officials at 16 community colleges told the authors of the Virginia report that ensuring the quality of dual-enrollment courses was “among their most problematic challenges.” The report said many high schools offer blended courses in which dual enrollment and other students “are placed in the same course.” In that situation, the report said, “maintaining college-level rigor is especially difficult.”

The state sets guidelines for who can teach dual-enrollment classes that earn college credits. It must be a teacher holding a graduate degree in the subject, or a teacher with a graduate degree in some field and at least 18 graduate credits in the subject being taught. High school teachers are unlikely to have those credentials, the report said.

So community colleges, the report said, have created some dual-enrollment courses that earn no credits at the sponsoring college but address subjects popular with high school students, for which the college receives revenue.

Byard said Northern Virginia Community College “does an excellent job” monitoring Loudoun’s dual-enrollment courses. He said that the district has no blended dual-enrollment courses and that its teachers have the required credentials.

Students with good AP and IB test scores also may not receive credit because college departments’ rules vary. But AP and IB officials don’t guarantee credit. They also have challenging final exams written and graded by independent experts, which most dual-enrollment courses do not. Some AP teachers reassigned to teach dual enrollment say the change has meant lower standards in their classrooms.

When I showed Loudoun school officials a copy of this column to check for errors, they changed on their website the statement I quoted in the second paragraph. It now reads: “The number of college credits a student earns will be determined by the college or university.”

That is a good move. Dual enrollment is growing fast. School districts need to explain carefully what college credit means when describing such a hot trend.