Inadequate accreditation: America's looming education crisis

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Jeremy Noonan

The Big Shortcut,” a striking eight-part series in Slate, reveals the broad scope of our public education system’s abuses of online credit recovery courses to boost graduation rates. Indeed, the series portrays an educational travesty of epic proportions, whose flagrant problems have rapidly proliferated as institutions at local, state, and federal levels have done little to address them.

One such group of institutions that should be doing a better job is accrediting agencies. Accreditation agencies have been around for decades, with a mission of ensuring quality control and academic integrity in our schools. That makes them perfect institutions to push back against the scourge of online credit recovery, whereby schools hand out dubious credits to students who click through watered down online courses. Yet some of these agencies appear to be not only missing in action, but complicit in this burgeoning scandal.

To illustrate this problem, herein are three accreditation standards used by AdvancED, one of the country’s largest accreditors, claiming as clients 34,000 schools worldwide that educate more than 20 million students—including the Georgia school district in which I live and where I have worked (and whose credit recovery abuses I have reported here). My district’s credit recovery program has violated these standards in multiple ways, and similar programs across the country likely have, too.

1. Equity: “The school’s curriculum provides equitable and challenging learning experiences that ensure all students have sufficient opportunities to develop learning, thinking, and life skills that lead to success at the next level.”

My district’s credit recovery program was not equitable in at least two ways. First, in the sense of having consistent quality for all students, its classes were less demanding than traditional courses and were poorly resourced due mainly to the fact that students did not have access to subject certified instructors. Second, in the sense of fairness with respect to race and economic conditions, the program disproportionately served poor and minority students on whom the school system had given up and whom it didn’t think were capable of actually learning enough to gain the credits needed to graduate.

Similar equity problems have been reported by Slate and USA Today, both of which describe the the way credit recovery programs sometimes exploit poor and minority populations.

2. Learning: “Teachers throughout the district engage students in their learning through instructional strategies that ensure achievement of learning expectations.”

My district’s credit recovery program was not set up to help students who needed remediation; it was set up to boost graduation rates. In addition to the absence of certified teachers, it didn’t employ researched-based instructional strategies. When students failed an assessment, they did not receive additional correction, but instead just guessed at the same multiple choice questions over and over again until they passed, learning very little in the process. Indeed, this practice was not unique to my district. It was a feature of the third-party software the program used, which was sold by Edgenuity, a private company that supplies online courses to thousands of schools nationwide, and which itself is accredited by AdvancED.

In 2015, the year my district’s graduation rates spiked by 13 percentage points, only about 11 percent of credit recovery students were proficient on state exams, even though everyone who completed the course got credit. This was not viewed as a problem. Instead, modifying the program to increase learning was seen as a threat to high graduation rates. In a district-wide credit recovery planning meeting, I raised the question of how we could boost the students test scores. The administrator running the meeting shut my query down saying, “Boosting test scores would be nice, but the most important thing is to maintain our high graduation rates.”

Worse, this is a Georgia-wide problem. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the statewide proficiency rate for credit recovery students was approximately 10 percent in 2015 and 2016, but roughly 90 percent of participants were getting credits.

3. Data-driven improvement: “Curriculum, instruction, and assessment throughout the system are monitored and adjusted systematically in response to data from multiple assessments of student learning and an examination of professional practice.”

In the aforementioned district meeting that made clear the priority placed on graduation rates, I asked a room full of credit recovery coordinators and assistant principals in charge of curriculum what the passing rates were on state exams. No one knew. At the time, I assumed they knew but were ashamed to say, but I later learned that they were being honest—and why they didn’t have that information: The data were hidden away in the district’s data management system under a folder labeled “Unknown.” Few had looked at it to assess learning, and even if they had, it was difficult to analyze because it contained no information about students’ schools or teachers—just names, subjects, and scores.

Put another way, I believe these data were “unknown” because no one wanted to know. The only data that mattered were graduation rates. And these were not used to improve learning, but to maintain and justify the con.

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Despite the widespread adoption of credit recovery programs, there is a glaring lack of meaningful data on their efficacy. And the studies that have been done, limited as they are, actually shown them to be less effective than taking a traditional course again. That combined with the accreditation violations described herein should make agencies like AdvancED look closely at schools that use these programs when considering accreditation renewal. And I have seen no evidence that this is happening.

Indeed, I helped a fellow resident of my county file a formal complaint on our district’s credit recovery program. We did this a few weeks before an external review team from the agency visited the district to perform an accredidation assessment it does every five years. AdvancED has since published its official accreditation report, and the district received an extraordinarily high overall score—scoring significantly higher than average on the very standards listed above.

The Slate series mentioned in the opening paragraph is named after The Big Short, an Academy Award–winning film portraying the culpability of credit-ratings agencies in the 2008 financial crisis. A number of agencies awarded high ratings to low-quality mortgage bonds, creating the false impression that high-risk, unstable investments were far safer than they were. And a failure of oversight meant that the market pressured agencies into such practices: If you didn’t accredit the hazardous products, your competitor would.

If American education isn’t careful, it risks creating a situation in which school accreditors mimic the past behavior of the mortgage industry’s credit-rating agencies, giving underserved approval to low-quality credit recovery programs. And just as the housing market crashed, so could the futures of millions of American students.

Jeremy Noonan is a father of four school-age children and a certified science instructor in Georgia, who has taught for ten years in public school, private school, and home school cooperatives. He also runs Citizens for Excellence in Public Schools, a local education advocacy group.