Are online credit recovery programs too flexible for their own good?

The digital revolution is sweeping across Ohio. This year, twenty-six e-schools, twelve of which serve students throughout the state, will educate 40,000 or so youngsters. Countless more students will learn in a “blended” classroom or take an online course at their brick-and-mortar school.

One emerging use of technology is to help secondary students recover credit.  At first glance, the flexibility of online learning seems to be tailor-made for students who, for whatever reason, are in dire need of credit recovery. But in her recent Education Next article, journalist Sarah Carr documents a few of the flies in the ointment when it comes to this nascent, computer-based approach to credit recovery.

First, the data and research about online credit-recovery are simply far “too incomplete.” According to an AIR analyst with whom Carr spoke, “Even basic questions are unanswered, like the size of the business [i.e., online learning providers] and the size of the need.” Second, she finds that there is practically no way to determine the quality of an online course provider. In fact, Carr described a New Orleans school where the principal ditched one provider because its courses failed to engage her students and the quizzes were mostly recycled until the student passed them. Lacking an external quality-control authority, the vetting of online courses remains the duty of local educators. Third, Carr provides a few examples of how credit-recovery can be misused and abused. She cites a New York City incident in which administrators pushed failing students into a credit-recovery program, evidently for the sole purpose of boosting graduation rates.

Meanwhile, the NCAA has ramped up its scrutiny of high school transcripts that include credits earned via online course taking. An NCAA spokesman remarked, “When kids are just clicking their way through courses, that’s generally not a college prep experience.”

Carr’s exposé jibes with the Ohio Auditor of State’s report on Columbus City Schools, which discovered awful abuses of its online credit-recovery program. (One can read the sordid details on pages forty-two to forty-five.) In fact, this article is yet another stark reminder that while digital education is moving at breathtaking speed, data and research, quality control, and accountability in this realm are all moving at a snail’s pace. Can Ohio’s educators, researchers, and policymakers keep up?

Aaron Churchill
Aaron Churchill is the Ohio Research Director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.