We need to know more about credit recovery

Editor's note: This post originally appeared in a slightly different form at U.S. News & World Report

Karoline Reyes dropped out of high school after the death of her mother. "I was in a really bad place," says the South Bronx nineteen-year-old. "It was hard to get school work done." Two years later, she enrolled at Bronx Haven High School, a "transfer high school" designed for kids who have dropped out or fallen behind in credits. She pulled away a second time, but Bronx Haven kept calling, encouraging her to sign up for classes. Her second-chance school wanted to give her another second chance.

Bronx Haven allowed Reyes to earn three credits via online classes. Two years of summer school meant four more credits, in addition to her already accelerated classes, which helped her make up for lost time. "I was two years behind and I didn't want to be in school forever," she says. Back on track, Reyes graduated in June, works at Montefiore Medical Center, and will start community college this fall. She plans to transfer to New York City's Hunter College for her bachelor's degree and credits Bronx Haven for not letting her fall between the cracks. "Even though I gave up on myself, they didn't give up on me," she says.

The path to high school graduation is not always straight. Family trouble, a pregnancy, an arrest, or merely losing interest and motivation can easily derail a kid, especially those who live on the economic margins. Credit recovery—the process of letting students who fall behind on credits make them up by means other than retaking classes—clearly works for students like Reyes. But a recent series of troubling articles in the New York Post offers a different, unsavory view of the practice: A student at William Cullen Bryant High School in Queens is making up the equivalent of an entire year's worth of classes in just six weeks this summer. In a first-person essay, another Bryant student recounted how she rarely attended a class she needed to graduate, missing both the final and the make-up test, but was passed by her teacher anyway, apparently due to pressure to raise the school’s graduation rate.

Whose story is more common? Reyes's, or the obvious abuses detailed in the Post? Both are purely anecdotal, but when it comes to credit recovery, anecdote is virtually all we've got—leaving the nagging suspicion that some credit recovery programs, and maybe even most, are a mere fig leaf covering up academic failure and inflating graduation rates.

The idea behind credit recovery is as old as attending summer school to retake algebra. But the phrase didn't enter the education lexicon until the No Child Left Behind Act, which required states to set goals for raising graduation rates and judged schools on their progress. A variety of programs have sprung up since then, including online credit recovery classes. Surprisingly little is known about the providers, the rigor of their offerings, or the validity of their results. There is not even a generally accepted definition of credit recovery, which has become a catch-all term for virtually anything that allows a student to earn missed credit and graduate.

Earlier this year, the U.S. graduation rate hit a record high of 81 percent. How much of that is due to credit recovery? At present, we can only guess. "I do believe credit recovery is contributing to the increase in graduation rates, but it is very hard to distinguish 'good' credit recovery from 'bad' credit recovery," says Russell Rumberger, a professor at the University of California Santa Barbara's Gevirtz Graduate School of Education. "The former would provide a level of rigor and learning similar to regular classes, while the latter does not. The problem is that we have little data on credit overall or data on the quality of credit recovery being provided." The result is an amorphous blob that is ripe for abuse. It’s then overlaid onto school systems that already have every incentive to graduate students and send them out into the world, ready or not.

Done properly, credit recovery is a good thing. Surely we want students like Reyes, who are ill-served by traditional schooling for whatever reason, to have a second or a third or fourth shot at earning a diploma and putting themselves on a path toward further study, a good career, and economic self-sufficiency. There is nothing wrong, and much right, with anything provides a safety net for kids facing challenges and raises graduation rates in the bargain. The trouble is that it's simply impossible to tell whether or not credit recovery is real and rigorous—the same academic target via different means—or just a phony way to juke the stats. Unless you go into schools and investigate, like the Post has done, it's impossible to know if there's real and serious academic work going on, or merely a wink, a nod, and a diploma.

Asked about the Post series and whether credit recovery allows kids to skate through, Reyes denies it. "I don't think that's true," she says. "When I was at Bronx Haven, I actually learned."

Kate Stringer contributed reporting.

Robert Pondiscio
Robert Pondiscio is a Senior Fellow and the Vice President for External Affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.