From intellectual property to best practices: Extending accountability and transparency to online credit recovery

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Samantha Viano

More than two-thirds of high schools nationwide offer credit recovery programs, and an average of 6 percent of students participate in them, according to Fordham’s new analysis that uses data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. In some states, the proportion is significantly higher. My own analysis of transcript data from North Carolina, for example, found that one in ten high school students took at least one credit recovery course over the last five years.

What is consistently missing from these data is information about how schools are providing credit recovery. If a student is repeating a course traditionally, there are clear standards for who should be providing that instruction: an educator certified to teach that subject who is employed by the school district. But when the course is online, there is no such national standard for who is providing instruction. Instead, as the Fordham report notes, regulation varies by state. In some, online learning is entirely centralized, such that all courses are created and administered by public entities. Others have no criteria or metrics whatsoever.

States with fewer regulations have been inundated by private corporations that provide credit recovery courses. I have spoken with district and school officials in North Carolina, for example, who report that these companies use aggressive sales and marketing strategies to convince schools to purchase access to their credit recovery courses. With many companies vying for a limited number of contracts, they’re encouraged to cut prices to sign on more schools. The district officials I spoke with acknowledge that the online courses they purchase from private companies are “boring” and rely on multiple-choice assessments, but also that more engaging platforms with higher quality instructional tools cost more.

School districts want to provide their students with effective online programs, yet deciding between the bargain-basement pricing of some providers and the deluxe suite of tools offered by others isn’t as simple as it might seem. Evidence on what constitutes an effective online course for secondary students is nascent, and empirical research on best practices is practically nonexistent. This lack of information makes it unclear whether the more expensive options are worth the cost.

This lack of clarity is partially caused by the design of the current system of administering online courses. By contracting through private providers, school districts typically have inconsistent access to student data and evidence regarding online course management because the companies consider this information proprietary. Compiling intellectual property is more valuable than gathering evidence that schools can use to improve credit recovery courses.

States must therefore pass regulations that compel these companies to disclose this information. One of the essential elements of any strategy to oversee or improve these programs is greatly enhancing the oversight of the providers. All data they collect on students should be shared with schools, and all modules and course material used with students should be archived. This transparency would enable school districts and states to craft their own set of best practices through outcome-monitoring systems designed to independently analyze the companies’ data.

Moreover, as the Fordham report suggests, vetting and external exams are two other ways that states can prevent abuse of credit recovery. In my research in North Carolina, for instance, I find that when students do take end-of-course exams, credit recovery enrollment is associated with lower test scores. But states must be careful to implement these quality controls correctly. Vetting systems should include clear agreements where sharing data is part of continuous approval processes for providers. And external exams should be coupled with requirements that private or public providers show evidence that they’re helping students learn the material necessary to pass the courses they failed. In the absence of such proof, providers should face sanctions and/or lose the ability to offer courses until they improve their quality.

Clear accountability, outcome monitoring, and vetting are necessary components of any ethical online credit recovery program. Unless changes like those are made, the private credit recovery providers with whom schools contract will continue their race to the bottom.

Samantha Viano is an Assistant Professor of Education at the Graduate School of Education, College of Education and Human Development at George Mason University.