Opinion
College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

High School Graduation Is Down. There Are No Quick Fixes

Online credit-recovery programs are popular, but many shortchange students
By Robert Balfanz & Karen Hawley Miles — May 26, 2022 4 min read
Illustration of students climbing broken ladders
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In education, there’s no such thing as a quick fix. That’s one thing we’ve learned in our decades of work with high schools across the country.

But the pressure to turn to quick fixes is greater now than ever as America’s high schools face a perfect storm of challenges⁠—high rates of course failure, chronic absenteeism, and staff shortages. With record numbers of students failing or missing classes, there’s a tremendous need for high schools to help students make up class credits—and fast.

Unfortunately, in our work with high schools and districts, we’ve observed that the way most schools approach credit recovery is woefully inadequate at ensuring students are learning the content they need for success after high school.

Over the past decade, a predominant catch-up strategy for high school students has been to enroll in self-paced virtual courses rather than retaking classes or attending summer school. For some students, these courses may be efficient, low-cost ways to often “recover” credits required for graduation. But few states have strong regulations for this coursework, few districts have robust vetting processes for credit-recovery vendors and curricula, and few students who take these courses demonstrate proficiency on state assessments.

A considerable number of students failed classes when instruction was virtual. Asking them to take another virtual course to make up credits from the one they failed often does not make sense.

Virtual classes can also create perverse incentives for educators and students alike. Some students realize they can make up a class with less time and effort through online credit recovery than sticking with regular coursework. And high schools and districts can maintain or increase—in some cases, dramatically—graduation rates without ensuring young people develop the knowledge and skills they need to be successful.

The way most schools approach credit recovery is woefully inadequate at ensuring students are learning the content they need for success after high school.

What we need instead of a quick-fix solution are creative, evidence-based strategies that offer young people meaningful opportunities to catch up and get back on track.

The federal government’s unprecedented investment in the recovery of our K-12 public schools offers the chance to rethink how schools use time, staffing, and resources to develop meaningful, flexible credit-recovery opportunities.

Research suggests that including face-to-face instruction and support are key to high-quality credit recovery. At the same time, competency-based programs in which students focus on the knowledge and skills they have not learned, rather than retaking entire courses, can help get them back on track faster by advancing through the work as they demonstrate true understanding of the content. Schedule flexibility—like offering options in the evening, on weekends, and during the summer—can also help students balance making solid academic progress with work or family responsibilities.

A complementary approach is to reduce the need for credit recovery. Early-warning systems, which help educators identify students at risk of falling off track, help here. When a student fails a test or misses school, schools use early-warning indicators to step in with extra support like tutoring or counseling. They also enable schools to observe if large numbers of course failures are occurring in a particular subject, grade, or classroom, signaling where instructional improvements or supports are needed.

Some districts already use models that follow research-based approaches, offering inspiration for other schools and districts across the country:

  • In the District of Columbia public schools, students in credit recovery participate in distinct, individualized, competency-based courses aligned to district curricula that feature face-to-face support. Teachers are empowered to reteach students until they gain proficiency, and students work at their own pace with multiple opportunities for meaningful feedback while a credit-recovery coordinator supports implementation at each school.
  • At Boston Day and Evening Academy, a charter school, schoolwork is designed so course failure is not an option. All courses throughout the year are competency-based, and students demonstrate what they have learned when they are ready to do so. Once they master all benchmarks related to the class, they are rated “competent” and move on to the next class in that subject area. When the school observed that this approach was not fully engaging for all students, faculty and students worked together to design BDEA 2.0, which integrates more hands-on, project-based, career-focused learning activities.
  • Ohio allows districts and schools to award two credits for a single course if the course meets the standards of two different subjects. This credit-flexible coursework offers the opportunity to create individualized, real-world learning experiences that help deepen relevance and student understanding, such as a government and agricultural-science course that draws on project-based learning.

Schools do not have to choose between credit recovery and learning. Districts should invest federal recovery dollars in the staff and curricula necessary to implement flexible, competency-based programs that provide students the help they need to make up lost credits and truly learn the content they missed the first time.

With creative planning rooted in research-backed strategies, schools and districts can devise meaningful supports for the students most impacted by the pandemic and build toward a more robust academic safety net for all students—one that allows them to persist toward meaningful diplomas without compromising their futures or delaying their dreams.

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