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high school graduation rates might be a mirage
By Jay Mathews
U.S. high school graduation rates are soaring. President Obama
announced in October that the 2014-2015 rate was up to 83 percent in a
fifth straight record-setting year. The D.C. public schools’ increase
was the greatest anywhere, from 53 percent to 69 percent.
Sadly, as impressive as these numbers seem, there is no research
indicating they reveal any learning gains in our high schools. Because
of an accelerating use of a shortcut to graduation called credit
recovery — used by 88 percent of school districts — most if not all of
this much-publicized high school improvement might be an illusion.
I asked Russell Rumberger, a leading expert on high school dynamics,
what he thinks of credit recovery. In many schools, these quick fixes
allow students to substitute a few weeks of work online for a course
that usually takes months in a classroom.
Rumberger said research on credit recovery generally “suffers from poor
designs, which means it’s hard to draw strong conclusions and most
research is carried out in higher education, not K-12.”
The most relevant data Rumberger found compared student experiences in
online and in traditional classroom versions of Algebra I during summer
school sessions for 1,224 Chicago students who had previously failed
the course. The students in the online course found it more difficult
and had more negative attitudes about math than the students who were
face-to-face with a teacher. The online students also had lower
assessment scores than those in the traditional course. Both groups had
similarly poor records in subsequent math courses.
The crucial difference between this study and what often happens in
high schools is that the online and face-to-face students in the
Chicago study by the American Institutes for Research spent the same
amount of time in the course. Online credit recovery courses can
“require less time and involve less work than a regular classroom
course,” said Rumberger, a professor at the University of California at
Santa Barbara. He wrote the 2011 book “Dropping Out” and directs the
California Dropout Research Project.
That isn’t often mentioned when state and local officials announce
their latest graduation rates, such as the impressive 87 percent in
Maryland and 91 percent in Virginia. Before educators get too excited
about the results from credit recovery, they need to assess how much
those students have learned in a few weeks compared with those who
spend months in class.
A report by the International Association for K-12 Online Learning says
“too often credit recovery ‘solutions’ have lowered the bar for
passing.” It recommends valid tests of competency before awarding
credit, something D.C. officials say they hope to do. Arlington uses
credit recovery usually for students well past age 18 or who have had
trouble with the law.
To Rumberger, measuring success by graduation rates is highly suspect.
“Students who are passing classes with a ‘D’ grade probably aren’t
learning much and are likely not prepared for college and careers,”
Rumberger said. “Some research suggests that students need a high
school GPA of 2.5 to be ready for college (i.e., don’t need
remediation) and have good labor market prospects. So we may be
graduating lots of students who are not adequately prepared for the
But until we find ways to engage such students in their classes, credit
recovery might be the only way, practically and politically, to get
them the high school diplomas they need to get into the workplace. A
significant number of 17- and 18-year-olds are so disenchanted with
high school that making them stay would be painful and
Credit recovery graduates are better off learning about the working
world in real jobs, which they are more likely to get if they have
diplomas. Meanwhile, we should restrain our enthusiasm about our rising
graduation rates. Those numbers aren’t worth the headlines they are
getting. We need to find ways to improve teaching and learning for all
students, before they decide high school is not worth the time and
trouble and escape any way they can.