Online Credit Recovery Courses Help Students Graduate But Lower Learning Standards, Researchers Say

New research about the effectiveness of online credit recovery courses shows that they help many struggling students graduate from high school and enroll in college; however, they may compromise user learning experiences.

Offered by a myriad of private companies, these interactive classes give students a chance to earn credit for high school courses they have missed or failed. Approximately 75 percent of American public high schools rely on them.

Scholars at Vanderbilt University and the University of Wisconsin have outlined the pros and cons of these courses in a working paper after conducting a longitudinal study of a large, unnamed public school district in the Midwest. According to the paper, the district started offering online courses to help students catch up on credits in 2010. The courses quickly became popular, with 40 percent of the school’s population taking at least one online credit recovery class by the 2016-2017 school year.

Researchers measured users’ academic performance by looking at data from the online platform as well as from district reports. In addition, they conducted hundreds of student observations and interviewed over 30 teachers and staff who facilitated the courses.

Students who participated in online credit recovery were 13 percent more likely to graduate high school than students who had failed or missed a necessary course but did not take advantage of this opportunity. Moreover, online credit recovery considerably affected whether participants would go on to enroll in college. Postsecondary enrollment among the district’s students has increased by 2.5 percent since it started implementing the program, according to researchers.

The program has served as a virtual lifeline for students with significant life challenges, one researcher told Education Week. This is especially true for students who are pregnant, have children, or those who recently returned to school after spending time in the criminal justice system, she said. That being said, actual skill mastery for students who took online credit recovery classes appears to have suffered in comparison to their peers. For instance, students who took the online classes performed more poorly on district-wide tests.

The learning environment for these online classes also tended to be inferior, researchers report. Some teachers passively monitored students on their computers instead of supporting and supplementing the instruction provided online per the intended “blended learning” model. Other teachers, dealing with large class sizes and students taking a variety of different courses in one room, struggled to support English Language Learners and students with disabilities.

Meanwhile, as online credit recovery becomes increasingly popular, the authors of the paper say they plan to do more research about its effectiveness, including tracking college completion and employment outcomes for former users.