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What do we know about "credit recovery"? Not much.

U.S. Department of Education

Last week I did a story about credit recovery and one high school's use of the online, after-school program to keep students at risk of failing "recover" credits to stay on track for graduation. But there's just one catch: we know next to nothing about these credit recovery programs. There is hardly any research on which programs are good, which are mediocre; we don't know whether students really absorb the content via an online class or whether face-to-face is better. We just don't have the data. And that's disturbing, considering credit recovery is a growing trend in education across the country. Jonathan Sapers put the trend into numbers in an article on

Approximately 88 percent of districts around the country offer some form of credit-recovery courses or programs, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And an American Institutes for Research (AIR) report providing preliminary data on a study of the efficacy of online programs in a range of Chicago high schools says that as many as 75 percent of U.S. districts have students enrolled in online courses. Credit-recovery programs are reportedly one of the fastest-growing areas of educational software.

So what do we know?

Well, there is a study underway in Chicago Public Schools by a researcher named Jessica Heppen called The Struggle to Pass Algebra I in Urban High Schools: Online vs. Face-to-Face Credit Recovery for At-Risk Students. According to Temple University's Center on Innovation in Learning, the study was funded by the federal government (AIR) in 2011. It looks at an online credit recovery course for first-time ninth graders who failed Algebra 1, and compares the course's impact with a traditional face-to-face Algebra I summer school course.

Heppen's study is not complete, but she talked with last year about her initial findings. A total of 15 schools took part in the study; schools were chosen because they had "the largest number of students who had failed the second semester of Algebra I in the 2009-10 school year." Here's an excerpt:

A majority of the students recovered the credit (which required a D or better), but the experiences of the students in the online course and the face-to-face course were very different.

"What we saw was that kids found the online course to be harder than kids who took the face-to-face class found their credit recovery," says Jessica Heppen, the study’s principal investigator. “[We also found] that credit-recovery rates were higher in the face-to-face class and, in the second summer, posttest scores were higher also.”

The long-term implications of these results are unclear, Heppen says. “We still have a lot of really interesting work to do to see whether kids who made it to a certain point in the online course by passing quizzes and exams may actually have had some benefits to their knowledge and understanding of second-semester algebra concepts, which was supposed to be what the course was.

”The face-to-face results may also bear a second look, adds Heppen. “We saw face-to-face classes that spent half their time on first-semester algebra content,” she says. “It is very possible that another interpretation is that those teachers were able to meet kids more where they were and figure out what they actually needed, even if the content was from a different course than the one they were there to recover.”

The article also talks about successful credit recovery programs in Boston and the Dallas/Fort Worth area, which is worth a read. Check it out here.

As for other big, comprehensive studies about the impact of credit recovery, Heppen's is the only one I've come across. If you know of others, leave a link in the comments section below.

Jennifer is a reporter with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and worked as a producer for WFUV in the Bronx.
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