The Credit-Recovery Scam

The flap over quality control, academic fraud, false claims, and shortcuts in the world of credit recovery will not die down until American education (and the elected officials who set its key policies) face up to two realities.

• Universal “college and career readiness,” unless far more carefully defined and monitored than anyone has done so far, is just as fraud-inducing a K-12 goal as “universal proficiency by 2014” was for No Child Left Behind. A noble objective indeed, but so hard to attain—in a land where high school diplomas signify scant “readiness” and more than a quarter of young people drop out before getting them—that today’s push for both universality and readiness impels a lot of folks to cut corners.

• At day’s end, there are just three ways of awarding “credit” for work done in (or out) of school (and conferring diplomas or equivalency certificates based on that credit): “seat time” as traditionally measured in Carnegie units; the judgment of classroom teachers; or “demonstrated mastery” based on credible external assessments. Most versions of “credit recovery” do none of these things well.

“Credit recovery” isn’t new, though in the old days nobody used that phrase. When I was young, kids who flunked courses that they needed to graduate were sent to summer school to “make up” what they hadn’t learned during the regular year. Kids who failed to get promoted from one grade to the next were told to repeat the former. These were, in fact, forms of “credit recovery” and they honored both the American principle of second chances and the schools’ insistence that certain academic standards be met by their pupils. Mostly, though, it was the teachers’ job to determine whether Billy and Bridget met those standards. Numerical and letter grades given by classroom instructors were the main metrics and courses passed (and how well) and grades completed were what those metrics tabulated.

The G.E.D. has been around for a long time, too, meant as a second chance for dropouts and others who just never got around to completing a regular high school diploma “on schedule.” The theory behind it is that if you can demonstrate on exams that you know and can do the “equivalent” of what you would have had to do for a regular diploma, you deserve a certificate that should be accepted—by colleges and employers, as well as census takers—as equivalent to such a diploma.

The G.E.D. is supposedly based on “mastery” rather than seat time. Unfortunately, much research has shown that G.E.D. holders don’t fare much better in the real world than dropouts, suggesting that its standards are too low and/or that colleges and employers don’t view it as truly equivalent.

The G.E.D. isn’t popular with school systems, either, as their performance and reputation hinge ever more on actual “graduation rates.”

Which brings us to modern “credit recovery,” often managed by districts (and “dropout recovery” charter schools) and often relying on technology more than face-to-face instruction by flesh-and-blood teachers. (The online version is cheaper and more flexible as to time and location, as well as more anonymous; hence it is arguably less embarrassing for the young person who dropped out, flunked the course, or neglected to take it the first time around.)

Today’s credit recovery is still intended to provide second chances for individuals who faltered the first time through, sometimes for reasons within their control (laziness, distractions, apathy, etc.) and sometimes due to factors outside it (illness, family crises, etc.). Today, however, the second-chance rationale is overshadowed by three more considerations: our obsession with “graduation rates,” our fixation on “universal college and career readiness,” and our unwillingness to acknowledge that anybody might actually be a “failure” (and pay the price).

The operational problem with credit recovery is how to determine when credit actually deserves to be deemed “successfully recovered”—on the basis of what evidence? It could be “seat time,” Carnegie-style, but that’s not a very good metric in a time of standards-based results-fixated education, and isn’t very practical outside the traditional brick-and-mortar school-year system. It could be teacher judgment, but many students don’t have much direct contact with real teachers and the for-profit firms that deliver many of the online programs have powerful commercial incentives to declare that credit has been earned. (Real teachers face such pressures, too, from districts, from federal and state policies, and maybe from their own egos.)

The third option for gauging the credit-worthiness of a student’s work is the external assessment, à la the G.E.D. But who sets the passing score and determines whether the exam-taker meets it? Once again, school districts, private firms, and even states face powerful incentives (as with “proficiency” under NCLB) to set their standards at levels that lots of young people will meet, whether or not that has anything to do with “mastery.” In today’s America, those incentives are stronger than the impulse to demand bona fide “readiness” for colleges and careers.

The Common Core and its new assessments may alter this balance of power (though only for two subjects). Rigorous, high-quality, statewide (or multistate) “end-of-course” exams could do likewise. We must hope so. However, while a lot of attention is being given to how such tests will work in the “regular” school context, not much has yet been paid to how they’ll function in the world of credit-recovery. The temptation, of course, will be to cut plenty of slack for young people in that world, a sort of end-run around the standards that kids in regular schools and courses will be expected to meet.

That would, however, be a bad thing, not just for the integrity of the education system and America’s international competitiveness but also for the young people themselves. Today’s foremost objection to “credit recovery” is not the second-chance opportunity but the painful reality that getting credit in this fashion does not denote true mastery and that colleges and employers won’t honor it any more than the G.E.D., maybe less. This feeds right into the least forgivable part of today’s unemployment problem: the hundreds of thousands of actual jobs going unfilled because employers cannot find people with the requisite skills to fill them!

What good does it really do society—or the young person himself—when the education system declares that he has “recovered” enough “credit” to deserve a credential that is described as evidence of college/career readiness when in the real world none of that is true?

The solution lies in more high-quality external exams with rigorous passing standards that denote bona fide readiness. But developing, administering, and scoring such assessments isn’t cheap. And if the standards are indeed rigorous, many of today’s credit-recovery programs will turn out not to have recovered much credit for young people who genuinely need it.

-Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This blog entry originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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