Expectations for academic progress in America’s public high schools keep increasing despite the fact that high-school test scores have been stubbornly stagnant in most states. As a result, schools have chosen to demonstrate success by using graduation rates, which have hit record highs five times in the past five years. The pressure to increase graduation rates continues, and to boost numbers, schools are increasingly using credit recovery programs (i.e., make-up classes) to give more struggling students a chance to graduate on time. Used judiciously these programs can be beneficial, but many schools are pushing too many students through them, allowing graduates to circumvent expectations rather than meet them.
Credit recovery programs offer students who failed a class a chance to “recover” those credits via abbreviated make-up courses to avoid repeating the school year. While these programs include summer school, today most consist of partly or wholly online make-up classes held during the school year. Done well, these programs can provide students with second chances to graduate, without sacrificing quality or rigor.
But a number of credit recovery scandals have raised red flags: In 2017, 15 percent of Washington D.C. graduates earned credits through make-up classes despite having never taken the original courses as policy required. Nashville’s graduation rates jumped 12 points in eight years notwithstanding consistent complaints by teachers that online credit recovery classes were poor quality. Recently, Tulsa boosted its graduation rate by four points and doubled its summer credit recovery program in which a student earned credit for 21 courses — almost an entire school year — in just a few weeks. The list goes on.
There is no way to know for sure if these scandals are the exception rather than the rule, but it’s clear that some credit recovery programs have profound quality control problems.
While too little is known about these programs nationally, and education researchers haven’t yet been able to gauge their rigor or quality, newly available data on every high school in America allowed us to determine how many schools had high rates of student participation in these credit recovery make-up classes. Not only are these high-volume credit recovery programs where quality problems are most likely to crop up, they also affect the most students.
About three-quarters of traditional U.S. high schools reported having a credit recovery program in 2015–16, and six percent of all high schoolers participated. More than one in five schools had at least 9 percent of their students taking credit recovery classes, and in total, these schools hosted 71 percent of all students taking make-up classes. Even more extreme were the schools whose participation rates were triple the national average. These “peak” credit recovery schools were only 8 percent of all schools, but served a whopping 39 percent of all credit recovery students. At these volumes, credit recovery programs invite issues like those manifest in Tulsa and D.C.
Schools with high-participation rates are different from the rest. They have more poor and non-white students, and fewer students performing satisfactorily. Their graduation rates are also lower. The differences are profound for “peak” schools, 28 percent of which are high-poverty, and 70 percent of which are majority minority (compared to all high schools where the percentages are 14 and 45, respectively). In “peak” schools, the students are more likely to be suspended, held back, and chronically absent. They are less likely to pass Algebra I on time, take and pass AP exams, or be proficient in reading and math. While their graduation rates remain below average, these schools have had one advantage: larger graduation rate gains than all other schools for four years running. The high-volume programs in these schools create more than a quality problem; the concentrated disadvantage of their students amounts to an equity problem.
Scandals aside, it’s possible that some high-volume programs are well-conceived, with policies in place to ensure that participants meet graduation standards. However, the dearth of information we found on 200 school districts websites — schools which had at least a 10 percent credit recovery participation — suggests otherwise. No information on credit recovery programs was posted in 15 percent of these districts. Basic information, such as what courses were available, when they were offered, and whether they were in class or online, was missing in far too many cases. For programs serving one in 10 students, this lack of information suggests a lack of quality control.
Pressure to improve graduation rates is healthy when it pushes schools to better prepare students for college or work. Providing struggling students with legitimate second chances to meet expectations and graduate on time is laudable. However, creating a second track to graduation with lower expectations, most often for disadvantaged students, is not. State and district leaders have a responsibility to ensure that the second chances they offer students are truly make-up classes, and not made-up progress to record graduation gains.
— Nat Malkus and Amy Cummings
Nat Malkus is a resident scholar and the deputy director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he specializes in K–12 education. Amy Cummings is a Research Assistant in Education Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.