Retaking classes online: ‘Awful if someone really wants to learn’

Anthony Sobowale studies in his dorm room for his organic chemistry class at Georgia State University. He says an online credit recovery class when he was a high school student in Douglas County was not the best way for him to learn. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Anthony Sobowale studies in his dorm room for his organic chemistry class at Georgia State University. He says an online credit recovery class when he was a high school student in Douglas County was not the best way for him to learn. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Anthony Sobowale finished his second attempt at a high school chemistry course in just three days.

After he‘d failed the class, Douglas County Schools placed him in an online make-up course. With no science teacher available to help him when he got stuck, he spent three days in a classroom and at home clicking from video to video and through quiz after quiz.

He got an A that even he says he really didn’t earn.

“Even if I was decent at the subject, I shouldn’t be able to complete an entire year’s course in three days,” he said.

The number of Georgia students who have made up courses they failed by taking online classes has grown rapidly. But most students pass the online classes without mastering the material.

Georgia students took more than 20,700 online “credit recovery” courses last year. State and local officials say the classes have helped Georgia improve its graduation rate, though it’s hard to pinpoint how much of the increase is due to credit recovery.

About 90 percent of Georgia students who took one of these courses last year in subjects covered by state tests passed the course itself. But an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of results of the state-required tests found only about 10 percent of them were proficient in the subject.

Educators say online credit recovery courses can keep students from dropping out. They can work through the online lessons at their own pace and on their own schedule. And some students say they prefer online courses to traditional classrooms.

But some teachers and students say the largely unregulated courses do more to boost graduation rates than help students learn material they didn’t get the first time around, leaving them with high school diplomas but without the skills they need to succeed in college or at work.

Even one of the most prominent national advocates for online learning says credit recovery courses have too often "lowered the bar for passing," allowing schools to claim higher passing and graduation rates even if students aren't learning.

The courses have little state regulation. There’s no requirement they be taught by a teacher, much less a teacher certified in the subject. Districts are free to place students who bombed a subject on their first try in teacherless online courses and hope for the best. There are no state rules that limit how quickly students can finish courses or to prevent cheating on most parts of the courses.

Former Douglas County teacher Jeremy Noonan was certified to teach science, but supervised online credit recovery classes in English, social studies, Spanish and other subjects. He said he was told to give students unlimited opportunities to pass tests and to let them change incorrect test answers before submitting them. Students could basically guess their way to a passing grade.

“You clearly have an example of the standards being lowered for kids to earn credit. They don’t have to learn anything and they still can get the credit,” he said.

“It’s awful if someone really wants to learn.”

How it works

Traditionally, students who fail a class retake the entire course the next semester or in summer school. Online credit recovery is supposed to provide a more efficient route to passing.

Most courses consist of videos, illustrations and readings. Students take them during the school day, after school or during breaks.

Some districts offer their own programs, often based on courses from educational technology companies; others use a state Department of Education program.

In most cases, students take quizzes after each unit and sometimes can “test out” of units they’ve already mastered.

Online credit recovery usually costs less than small-group remedial classes. And the flexibility means students are less likely to get frustrated, Douglas County Chief Academic Officer Pam Nail said.

“It’s preventing them from being delayed to the point where they’re saying, ‘I can’t do this, I’m going to drop out,’ ” she said.

Little research

There’s little national research showing these kinds of online courses are the best way to help struggling students learn.

A recent study of Chicago students who failed Algebra I as ninth-graders and retook the class online or in a traditional class found students in the online course had lower grades, lower pass rates, lower scores on an end-of-course test, and less confidence in their math skills.

Another study of online, mostly credit recovery courses in New York high schools found concerns about course quality, academic integrity and the lack of face-to-face interaction.

Research on online schools, where all classes are taken via the internet, could hold some lessons, said Brian Gill, who has studied online schools for Mathematica Policy Research.

Getting students in online schools to participate in lessons and do their homework is hard, he said. It may be even harder for students who have already failed one or more classes.

“They can’t be doing it on the cheap. You’ve got to have enough teaching resources to make sure teachers are paying attention to individual students,” he said.

“There are some kids who for one reason or another don’t do well in a conventional school setting, but are motivated and do well online. But I would guess that’s a pretty small number of the kids who need to be in credit recovery programs,” he said.

Many districts began offering their own programs around the same time the state did, in 2007. The Georgia Department of Education suggests best practices for its online credit recovery program, such as requiring a score of at least 60 in a first attempt to pass a class before students can retake it online, and staffing classes with highly qualified teachers.

But “as far as the best practices, they may or may not use them depending on what they find works,” said Sarah Newman, who until recently supervised the state’s online credit recovery program. “It’s very much done at each individual school, and they are very much responsible for the program.”

“One of those districts”

In Gwinnett County, Georgia’s largest school district, enrollment in online credit recovery classes tripled in the past three years.

Last year, more than 700 students took online credit recovery classes. Every one of those students passed, according to data obtained under the Georgia Open Records Act. Yet for courses requiring students to take state tests, less than one in five mastered the material, state test results show.

That's actually one of the higher proficiency rates in the state among online credit recovery students, according to state data. (About 50 districts didn't report any students in online credit recovery courses.)

Gwinnett officials said it’s not surprising that so many students passed their classes. Only students who fail a class by 10 points or less on their first attempt are allowed to retake it online.

“We feel like those students are close to passing the course the first time around and just needed some more time,” associate superintendent Jonathan Patterson said. The high passing rate shows “we’re doing what credit recovery is intended to do.”

Test scores for some of those students were below “proficient,” but high enough to show they had learned some course material, Gwinnett officials said in a written statement. Those students “have shown improvement and have learned more of the content necessary for the course.”

The Georgia Department of Education expects students who have passed a course to be proficient in the material, spokeswoman Meghan Frick said.

But for students who failed a course on their first try, just getting to partial proficiency is an achievement, said administrators in Coffee County, where state test results show that about 2 percent of students who passed an online credit recovery course last year were proficient in the subject.

Even motivating students to focus on the state exams is “a challenge,” Coffee County High School principal Rowland Cummings said. Students no longer have to pass state end-of-course tests to graduate. And the state tests only count for a fifth of students’ overall grades.

“When it comes to taking the test … students are not applying the same level of effort,” he said. “Right now, school systems don’t have the leverage.”

In Douglas County, where Anthony Sobowale earned his “A” in three days, less than one in five students who passed online credit recovery classes in state-tested subjects last year were proficient in the subject, state testing data show.

Douglas County administrators say some criticisms of online credit recovery are valid, though they say problems in their schools are not pervasive. Still, they’re making changes.

To reduce the chance of cheating, they’ve banned cellphones in classes, “locked down” browsers to keep students from Googling answers, and told teachers to make sure they’re monitoring students, said Kwame Carr, who oversees the district’s program.

They’ve set guidelines for how quickly students should progress, made it harder for students to guess their way through quizzes and limited how many times students can attempt a quiz or test before getting help from a teacher. They’re testing different online course programs this year, to see if a new one might work better.

And they’ve started to monitor whether students who pass online classes also pass the state tests.

Some districts may be misusing online credit recovery courses, Carr said. “We’re not one of those districts.”