LAUSD’s credit recovery program boosts grad rates, but do students learn?
Craig Clough | February 29, 2016
LA Unified announced this month that the district may graduate 80 percent of its seniors this year, a record high, but a growing number of critics say that record is suspect because online credit recovery courses are largely responsible for the achievement.
The news of the potentially record-breaking graduation rate came mere weeks after a projection in January showed only 54 percent of seniors were on pace to complete their “A though G” course requirements for graduation. Within a month, the district said that number had jumped to 63 percent and was expected to climb to 80 percent, in large part because of its new $15 million credit recovery program.
While district officials and some board members are saluting the credit recovery program, some academic scholars and institutions are skeptical of online credit recovery programs, saying they are an easy way to boost graduation rates without boosting student learning.
“It looks very fishy,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an editor of Education Next and research fellow at the Hoover Institution. “I think that we all need to be extremely skeptical that [LA Unified] can make that amount of progress in such a short amount of time and have it be meaningful.”
In the credit recovery program, seniors without enough credits to graduate retake classes during free periods, after school, on Saturdays and during the winter break. Many of the courses are online and have either a teacher running the class along with a computer program — known as blended learning — or an all-online course known as virtual learning. One online program in wide use by the district, Edgenuity, has students taking eight five-hour sessions online. If students prove proficiency with the material they receive a “C” grade. A’s and B’s aren’t an option.
LA Unified leaders, including Chief Academic Officer Frances Gipson, defended the credit recovery program as academically sound.
“Whether it’s online or any other credit recovery course, it’s the same. It is still an LA Unified teacher working with LA Unified students,” Gipson told a group of reporters on Feb. 23 after she made a presentation to the school board about the credit recovery program. Gipson also said the district had worked with California universities and colleges to make sure the online credit recovery programs are approved by them.
But Petrilli and others question the academic value of online credit recovery courses. A report in September issued by the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, was highly critical.
“These are often computer-based software programs that are low-cost, have very low levels (if any) of teacher involvement, and require very little of students in demonstrating proficiency. They are used primarily because they are inexpensive, and they allow schools to say students have ‘passed’ whether they have learned anything or not,” the report stated.
According to the report, the National Center for Education Statistics said 88 percent of school districts around the country offered some form of credit recovery courses to their students in school year 2009-10, and, “as online and blended learning have grown significantly in the last five years, it is likely those numbers are significantly higher now.”
The report also noted that “there is no federal definition of ‘credit recovery’ available.”
Petrilli said the growing use of credit recovery by school districts is alarming and may be responsible for the record high national graduation rate that was achieved for the 2013-14 school year.
“This doesn’t come close to passing the smell test,” Petrilli said. “Unfortunately, we’ve seen all across the country urban districts get very excited about credit recovery programs and we have very little confidence that they are maintaining academic standards while catching kids up. It looks like a very rational but dishonest response to accountability systems that are now holding schools and districts accountable for increasing their high school graduation rates.”
A 2012 report by the Center for Public Education pointed to a lack of overall regulation of credit recovery programs, as well as a lack of any full academic study of their effectiveness. The report found that credit recovery “is a highly decentralized, unregulated and under-researched dropout prevention initiative. There is little information on enrollment numbers or effectiveness. So far, credit recovery programs have not been evaluated for rigor or equal access either.”
The report also said the number of district-initiated online learning programs is unknown and “there is no coherent definition emerging among states that cite credit recovery programs in statutes or administrative code.”
With LA Unified set to potentially break its graduation rate by riding the back of its credit recovery program, more critics are taking notice. The Los Angeles Times Editorial Board joined the ranks of the skeptics recently, saying, “Some legitimate questions are now being raised about whether all these students have truly mastered the material that had previously eluded them.”
After Gipson’s progress report on the credit recovery program to the LA Unified school board’s Committee of the Whole on Feb. 23, board members had mostly positive things to say. Only board member Monica Ratliff raised any questions, saying, “Are these credit recovery courses really rigorous A through G courses? How do we know? What’s our evidence? And are we making sure that the ultimate diploma is the same for everyone?”
Petrilli pointed to a lack of outside studies of online credit recovery programs, and that most of the evidence of their effectiveness comes from the companies that make the programs. Edgenuity’s web page, for example, contains many reports highlighting how the program has helped districts around the country boost graduation rates. Petrilli said these online programs are injecting vendors into the setting of academic graduation standards like never before.
“I think there needs to be an external exam, external to the school and external to the vendor that the kid can in fact show that he has mastered algebra II or whatever it is,” Petrilli said. “But when the assessment is embedded in the program, it is the vendor’s own program, and it’s all controlled by the vendor and the district, there is no way to ensure some measure of quality control or academic standards. I think we are further degrading the high school diploma, and we don’t have a good way of knowing if the diploma LAUSD is handing out is going to mean anything.”
Mike Szymanski contributed to this article.