Regulation of Credit Recovery Courses Slowly Gains Steam

This practice seems to be falsely boosting graduation rates at the expense of students. Some people are starting to pay attention.

Teacher helping student use laptop in class

Some states have started investigating graduation rate upsurges—although it’s unclear whether they’re probing the role of credit recovery as part of those inquiries.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Hill Street Studios/Getty Images.

Former teacher Lindalyn Kakadelis worries that nothing has demeaned the value of a high school diploma more than online credit recovery courses. For years, she’s complained that the classes, used across the U.S. to help high school students recover failed credits online, too often let teens pass core subjects in a matter of days, turning school into a joke. Kakadelis, who until recently lived in Charlotte, North Carolina, has spent dozens of hours agitating for the state to step up oversight to ensure that the online courses involve a substantial amount of student work. She’s brought her concerns to the lieutenant governor’s office, the state superintendent’s office, and the North Carolina State Board of Education. For a long time, she seemed to be getting nowhere. “I have been on a warpath, but I haven’t been able to get people’s attention,” she says.

Then, a few weeks ago, the state board finally agreed to take her concern seriously—or, at least, to dedicate some time to it at a meeting in October.

Even before the state board put it on its agenda to review, district officials in Charlotte had started investigating credit recovery, conducting a detailed analysis of how many of the courses their students were taking. Educators in Los Angeles; Del Rio, Texas (a small city on the U.S.-Mexico border); and Georgia have expressed similar concerns, and policymakers have started to listen. In Los Angeles, officials are using a federal grant to compare the efficacy of online credit recovery with face-to-face remedial instruction. In Del Rio, the superintendent hired a law firm a year and a half ago to scrutinize his district’s credit recovery practices and to make recommendations for change accordingly.

But for the most part, state lawmakers continue to punt responsibility to districts, even when asked to get involved—a testament to the overwhelming power of local control in American education. Most states don’t know how many students in their jurisdictions are taking online credit recovery classes—let alone how rigorous they are—and most don’t care to find out. Even in states like Alabama, Maryland, and Florida, where politicians have become leery of the suspiciously high graduation rates that are often linked to heavy reliance on online education, they’ve been slow to address the potentially problematic role of credit recovery.

“I think (state lawmakers) are the ones that have the least information on this,” says North Carolina State Board of Education member A.L. “Buddy” Collins, who hopes that his colleagues will buck that trend at their upcoming October meeting.

The Charlotte school district’s investigation began after a local news story quoted anonymous sources claiming that students were finishing online credit recovery classes  meant to compensate for semesterlong courses in less than a week.

“We felt obligated to our students to go back and do a comprehensive review of every student that earned credit through credit recovery,” says Brian Schultz, the district’s chief academic officer. Officials analyzed records from 9,000 students, looking specifically at how many took four or more credit recovery courses (there were 74). The district also identified two students who had fallen short of graduation requirements (because they had spent so little time on their online credit recovery courses) and offered them the chance to re-enroll.

According to a follow-up local news story, the district plans to mandate training for credit recovery facilitators, teachers, counselors, and administrators, and it will require that diagnostic and final exams be taken in a supervised setting, among other changes.

The upcoming October board meeting is set to investigate reports from state officials that North Carolina’s high school graduation rate reached a historic high of 86.5 percent last school year. Despite that number, standardized test scores deemed just over 59 percent of students proficient enough to move onto the next grade—suggesting that unprepared students are being allowed to graduate. For Collins and Kakadelis, who now works as an independent education consultant, the chasm between graduation and proficiency rates was unsettling. For economically disadvantaged students, that gap was particularly stark: Though less than 30 percent were proficient in math, more than 80 percent were graduating.

Collins urged his colleagues to add credit recovery to the October agenda, concerned that the practice might have created an “easier path that (students) are taking to fulfill the requirements that don’t align with the skill levels that we’re expecting our graduates to have.” He says that North Carolina’s board of education hasn’t yet grasped what’s happening on the ground with credit recovery. “We’re relying upon the local education agencies to do the job,” he says. “Until we understand what the scope of it is, it’s hard to understand whether we need to do anything from a regulatory or statutory approach.”

Should the board choose to investigate credit recovery after next month’s meeting, Collins says that its first step would be working with the state superintendent and department of public instruction to review any information that the state maintains on the subject. If problems are identified, Collins says, he wouldn’t rule out limiting districts to using state-reviewed online courses. (Our series found that there are currently six states that restrict districts from buying discredited virtual content.) “You could prequalify programs in a way that would ensure rigor and accountability,” he says.

Schultz hopes that the board digs into the data. “Autonomy is really great until someone abuses it,” he says. “We’re always told as educators to look at the numbers. I would expect our state education agency to do the same thing when they’re making decisions.”

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In Los Angeles and Del Rio, complaints about credit recovery are still largely being investigated by local officials rather than state policymakers. Leaders in Los Angeles have acknowledged the importance of gathering data, partnering with the American Institutes for Research to address the efficacy of online credit recovery in local high schools. The city received a federal grant of $3.3 million for the project, which will be led by Jessica Heppen, who ran a similar analysis in Chicago (her study, released in 2016, showed that students recovering credits online weren’t as successful as peers who regained them through face-to-face instruction).

In Del Rio, district officials have been slower to take action, although they did ultimately commission an investigation. When teacher Ayde Rosas Davis, who worked at her district’s credit recovery center from 2014 to 2016, reported that instructors there were giving students test answers, she says that she was shut down on all fronts—first by her supervisor, then by the local school board, and finally by the state. After her supervisor allegedly tried to discredit her, Davis emailed her district’s school board members. Only two responded, she says, before being told to cease communication with her by the district’s superintendent. (The supervisor and the district spokesperson did not respond to multiple requests for comment.) “I was so confused,” Davis says, “because I thought the school board members were for the citizens.”

In an email, school board president Joshua Overfelt confirmed that Davis complained to him when he was a board member, adding that her claims had been thoroughly investigated and “could not be verified.” He denied that Davis’ supervisor tried to discredit her—and that the superintendent ignored her concerns—although he did not provide additional details.

So Davis turned to the state. She sent officials at the education department thousands of pages of data, including the length of time it was taking students to finish classes and complete online tests (the data showed that one year, teenagers passed 37 semesterlong courses in less than five hours).

After reviewing her complaint, the Texas Education Agency reached out to the district, which at the end of 2015 hired a law firm to conduct a three-month-long investigation. While the firm found no evidence of wrongdoing, it did recommend that the district establish formal guidelines around credit recovery, including how much teachers should be allowed to assist their students with online courses; it also advised that the district install cameras to monitor teacher-student interactions in credit recovery labs.

Overfelt said that the district has implemented those recommendations, with the exception of the cameras, which, he wrote, “raised significant legal concerns.” The state, for its part, was satisfied by the administration’s response and closed Davis’ complaint. “We felt it had been adequately addressed,” said DeEtta Culbertson, a state department of education spokeswoman, in an email, adding that, “Credit recovery programs are under local district discretion.” (Culbertson’s response echoes what countless officials told the Teacher Project and Slate last spring—that most state officials know little to nothing about credit recovery, don’t consider it a state issue, and don’t have plans to change that.) Davis says that state officials never interviewed her.

Like North Carolina, Del Rio has seen spiking graduation rates: from 69 percent in 2007 to 93 percent in 2015.

Davis was transferred to a new school and eventually resigned from the district in the spring out of frustration “I doubt I’ll go back to teaching in Texas,” she says. Originally from Mexico, Davis says she had “always looked up to the U.S. as a great country that valued education like I do. But I’m so disappointed in the system.”

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Some states have started investigating graduation rate upsurges—although it’s unclear whether they’re probing the role of credit recovery as part of those inquiries. In June, the U.S. Department of Education found that Alabama’s former state superintendent had deliberately misreported graduation rates in order to inflate the state’s overall number, although its report didn’t include anything on credit recovery. Still, some state board of education members have suggested that a heavy reliance on remedial online classes might be playing a role.

That same month, Maryland’s governor asked the state board of education to investigate allegedly fraudulent graduation rates reported by district officials in Prince George’s County, the second largest district in the state, where employees have said that graduation rates have increased partially because of the school’s new credit recovery system. The state board voted to bring in an independent investigator, and in late August it hired a firm to perform an audit of the graduation rate. It’s unclear the extent to which the probe will focus on online credit recovery.

In Florida, the Department of Education is examining its rising graduation rates following a ProPublica investigation into alternative charter schools. “Because the graduation rates in Florida have gone up a lot over the past few years, I think there’s concern,” says Erika Donalds, vice chair of the Collier County School Board and the wife of Florida state Rep. Byron Donalds. “We should all be concerned when graduation rates climb but proficiency rates do not. “

But once again, it doesn’t appear that credit recovery will factor heavily into the investigation, despite the fact that it is widely used throughout Florida high schools, including in Gadsden County, where the superintendent initially embraced the practice in 2011 in an explicit effort to boost graduation rates. Since our reporting last spring, West Gadsden Principal James Mills has left the district (for reasons that aren’t clear), the district’s two struggling high schools have merged into one, and administrators continue to face pressure from the state to boost their graduation rates to avoid a state takeover.

That threat makes it unlikely that the superintendent will have much incentive to delve deeply into the rigor of his district’s credit recovery program. And while it’s possible that the state will step in, if past precedent holds true, Florida will leave it up to districts to self-investigate possible abuse within their own ranks. Despite the recent baby steps in the direction of accountability over credit recovery, officials have a long way to go toward ensuring that the growing number of diplomas granted in communities across the country actually mean something.