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Opinion Has D.C. learned from its graduation scandals?

Members of the class of 2018 at Ballou High School on graduation day in Washington on June 11, 2018.
Members of the class of 2018 at Ballou High School on graduation day in Washington on June 11, 2018. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Adam Tyner and Nicholas Munyan-Penney are associate director of research and development and research associate, respectively, at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a nonprofit education think tank located in Washington.

Last year, local media exposed the widespread corner-cutting that had been boosting the District of Columbia Public School’s graduation rates, wherein high schools allowed students to pass courses and walk across the stage even after they had missed months of classes. What’s less understood is the role of “credit recovery” programs in the awarding of diplomas to undeserving students. Despite a formal policy forbidding such activities, some DCPS schools permitted students to take online credit recovery courses in lieu of regular courses. In some cases, students would take the credit recovery course at the same time as the regular course, presumably because passing the former would be easier.

As co-authors of a national report, we found that outsize enrollment of students in credit recovery programs in the District was far from confined to Ballou High School, the school that got the most negative attention during the scandal. Not only do 18 of the 22 D.C. high schools that we analyzed have these programs but also 22 percent of those enroll high shares of students in them.

These programs enable high schoolers to gain missing credits after initially failing to pass a required course. They are intended to be an alternative for students to demonstrate mastery of the same content and skills as the original course. But across the country, anecdotal evidence is mounting that, although credit recovery may allow kids to “recover” credits needed for graduating, it often delivers little in terms of actual learning. In some of these programs, students simply click through online tests, Google the answers or even pay strangers on Twitter to complete the courses for them. It’s no surprise, then, that research has found some credit recovery programs to be less effective than traditional classroom instruction.

Our report found that more than two-thirds of high schools across the country have credit recovery programs. But the number of students enrolled in them varies substantially, with nearly 1 in 10 high schools in the United States enrolling more than 20 percent of students.

Yet the District holds a dubious distinction: Of D.C. public schools with active credit recovery programs, 22.2 percent enroll more than 20 percent of students in them, more than twice the national average of 9.1 percent. The district’s 18 credit recovery programs enroll 1,416 students, or 12.7 percent of all high schoolers, far greater than the national average of 8.1 percent.

Compare that with neighboring Prince George’s County’s high schools, where no schools with credit recovery programs report enrolling more than 20 percent of students, and just 3.3 percent of all high school students participate in these programs.

These results should raise a cautionary flag for D.C. educators and policymakers. These guidelines are laudable for aiming to improve the quality of credit recovery courses, by requiring subject-certified teachers to administer courses and only allowing online coursework to be supplementary to teacher-led instruction. Plus, more importantly, the DCPS central office will identify and approve online content for schools in the credit recovery courses.

Beyond these initial steps, schools should require students to pass an external test to ensure that they have learned the material — something D.C.’s new policy suggests but doesn’t require. In the absence of this external check on quality, DCPS should adopt the “ounce of prevention” rule. For example, it might stipulate, as Alabama and Tennessee do, that students achieve a minimum score in the original course so they aren’t starting from scratch with new material. If they don’t reach that minimum, require them to retake the traditional course to earn credit. And the eligibility requirements, which were flagrantly ignored by many schools, should be closely monitored.

If a high school diploma is to be more than a “certificate of attendance,” state and local officials must take responsibility for how schools award credit. DCPS has taken key steps in that direction. But, until there’s evidence that this new policy is being implemented with fidelity, D.C.’s graduation rates should continue to be met with suspicion.

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