Graduation rates are up, but is it real?

High school graduation rates are up, but why? Tonight, PBS NewsHour looks at charges schools are increasing numbers artificially by “labeling dropouts as transfers, encouraging home schooling for their most troubled students, or creating alternative systems such as computer-based ‘credit recovery’ courses.”

The show also examines small theme-based schools in New York City and early college programs in Texas that seem to be getting more students to a valid high school diploma.

Credit recovery is a scam

Credit recovery programs are a scam, writes Checker Finn on Education Gadfly.

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.

Credit recovery is driven by the desire to give people a second chance, “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),” Finn writes.

Whether students are given credits for sitting in class, pleasing a teacher or — more likely — completing a series of worksheets and a test, there are strong incentives to pass students, Finn writes.

. . . 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.

Common Core Standards, which will come with new assessments for English Language Arts and math, could set a real standard for college and career readiness, Finn writes. So could high-quality end-of-course exams. But  the pressure will be intense to lower the bar.

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.

I think the only alternative is to create two or three levels of high school diploma:  Brittany graduates with an academic diploma and honors in math, chemistry and physics, while Biff earns a basic diploma and a woodworking certificate.

In 2 days, failing students pass, graduate

Three Los Angeles seniors who failed a required class, were able to transfer to a credit-recovery school for two days, pass and return to graduate with classmates, reports the Los Angeles Times. Teachers are annoyed.

 The students withdrew from STEM Academy of Hollywood as late as June 13, a Wednesday, attended the adjacent Alonzo Community Day School the next day, and checked back into STEM to graduate that Friday.

The three had failed economics or history classes taught by Mark Nemetz, who complained the fast shuffle “damages the credibility of STEM.”

“Why should next year’s seniors make a serious effort next year if they know they have this option available to them at the end?” wrote teacher Julio Juarez.

STEM Principal Josie Scibetta said she was obligated to accept the credits and  told the Times she’s concerned about Nemetz’s ”rigid” grading policies.

Alonzo, the alternative school, is intended for students who are at risk of dropping out. Although it has a traditional school day, it measures credits only by work completed, not the time the students spend in class, said Principal Victorio R. Gutierrez.

It’s difficult and rare, but not impossible, for a talented student to complete in two days material that another student might need a year to master, Gutierrez said. He added that his school’s rigor does not necessarily match that of a regular high school, but his instructors teach the required material, and students have to produce work and pass quizzes to demonstrate their knowledge.

Credit recovery undermines standards, writes Walt Gardner on Ed Week.

Shelbyville’s plan to prevent dropouts

Shelbyville, Indiana made Time‘s Dropout Nation cover in 2006 with a 75 percent graduation rate. Learning Matters TV looks at what the town is doing to prevent dropouts, including offering online “credit recovery.”

Critics charge ‘credit recovery’ abuses

New York is looking into charges that credit recovery programs make it too easy for students to blow off schoolwork, earn credits for doing very little and pick up a diploma. Principals are evaluated based on graduation rates, providing an incentive to lower standards. (Students can earn P.E. credits online.) Read teachers’ comments on Gotham Schools.

It’s not just a New York City thing. Teachers all over the country have been complaining about credit recovery.

‘Click-click’ credits raise graduation rates

K-12 schools are adding — and sometimes requiring — online classes, reports the New York Times.  Failing students try to “recover” credits online; successful students take electives and Advanced Placement classes that don’t generate enough interest to justify a class. But the quality of online learning is suspect, especially for weak students.

Memphis City Schools now requires all students to take at least one course to graduate, starting with this year’s sophomores. School officials say “they want to give students skills they will need in college, where online courses are increasingly common, and in the 21st-century workplace,” the Times reports.

But it is also true that Memphis is spending only $164 for each student in an online course.

. . . “It’s a cheap education, not because it benefits the students,” said Karen Aronowitz, president of the teachers’ union in Miami, where 7,000 high school students were assigned to study online in computer labs this year because there were not enough teachers to comply with state class-size caps.

Idaho will give a laptop to every high school student and require four or more online courses. Critics complain the state will replace teachers with technology.

Chicago and New York City are piloting online learning programs, which include both credit recovery and advanced classes for high school students, as well as “personalized after-school computer drills in math and English for elementary students.”

Nationwide, an estimated 1.03 million students at the K-12 level took an online course in 2007-8, up 47 percent from two years earlier, according to the Sloan Consortium, an advocacy group for online education. About 200,000 students attend online schools full time, often charter schools that appeal to home-schooling families, according to another report.

There’s little research on the effectiveness of online courses for K-12 students, reports the U.S. Education Department.

Even online advocates are “dubious” about online courses that let students who’ve failed a regular class “recover” the credits, the Times reports. These “click-click credits” are used to boost graduation rates.

Sheffield High in Memphis, once a “dropout factory” with a graduation rate below 60 percent, now hopes to graduate 86 percent of the class of 2011. Online classes have helped. The district buys software for the Florida Virtual School, then pays its own teachers extra to work 10 hours a week with 150 online students.

The Times watches Daterrius Hamilton’s online English 3 course.

. . . he read a brief biography of London with single-paragraph excerpts from the author’s works. But the curriculum did not require him, as it had generations of English students, to wade through a tattered copy of “Call of the Wild” or “To Build a Fire.”

Asked about social Darwinism, the 18-year-old student did a Google search, copied a Wikipedia entry and e-mailed it to the teacher.

Online classes aren’t always money savers, writes Sarah Butrymowicz on HechingerEd. In particular, online credit-recovery classes don’t work without “some sort of teacher presence, whether virtual or physical.”

Failure to educate

In her final year as a Boston public high school teacher, Junia Yearwood attended her first  graduation ceremony.  It was a charade, she writes in the Boston Globe.

I knew that most of my students who walked across the stage, amidst the cheers, whistles, camera flashes, and shout-outs from parents, family, and friends, were not functionally literate. They were unable to perform the minimum skills necessary to negotiate society: reading the local newspapers, filling out a job application, or following basic written instructions; even fewer had achieved empowering literacy enabling them to closely read, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate text.

However, they were all college bound — the ultimate goal of our school’s vision statement — clutching knapsacks stuffed with our symbols of academic success: multiple college acceptances, a high school diploma; an official transcript indicating they had passed the MCAS test and had met all graduation requirements; several glowing letters of recommendation from teachers and guidance counselors; and one compelling personal statement, their college essay.

Yearwood started as a 12th-grade English teacher in 1977 in Roxbury. Over the years, she saw the advent on tests, such as the MCAS.

Teachers, instructors, and administrators made the test the curriculum, taught to the test, drilled for the test, coached for the test, taught strategies to take the test, and gave generous rewards (pizza parties) for passing the test. Students practiced, studied for, and passed the test — but remained illiterate.

Students were given A’s and B’s “for passing in assignments (quality not a factor), for behaving well in class, for regular attendance, for completing homework assignments that were given a check mark but never read,” Yearwood writes.

Teachers were pressured to pass undeserving students so they could walk across the state at graduation. If necessary to produce a graduate, administrators found MCAS waivers, transferred students to a “special needs” category or put students in online “credit recovery.”

Last June, she attended graduation for the first time ” at the urgings of my students — the ones whose desire to learn, to become better readers and writers, and whose unrelenting hard work earned them a spot on the graduation list — and the admonition of a close friend who warned that my refusal to attend was an act of selfishness, of not thinking about my students who deserved the honor and respect signified by my presence.”

Yearwood appears in a 2008 Globe story about attempts to turn around English High in Jamaica Plain, where she taught for most of her career.  She gives a D- to a student who makes up missing work on the last day in hopes of walking across the stage to pick up a diploma.

Online credit recovery hikes grad rates

High schools are boosting graduation rates by adopting online “credit recovery” programs, reports the Texas Tribune and the Hechinger Report in the New York Times. It’s not clear whether recovering students have learned as much as students who passed the original class.

Brett Rusnock can follow his students’ every move on his laptop: how much time they spend on computers each day at Waltrip High School in Houston, their scores on quizzes and when they stop working. He even gets e-mail alerts when they toil at home into the wee hours. “I can play Big Brother a little bit with this,” Mr. Rusnock said.

Students at Austin High work on their courses in a school computer lab that is run by two teachers and two assistants.

Mr. Rusnock is not a teacher. He is a grad coach, one of 27 in Houston monitoring thousands of students who take so called credit-recovery courses online. Like many other districts across the state, particularly those with high dropout rates, the Houston Independent School District offers these self-paced make-ups to any student who fails a class. In the spring and summer terms, 6,127 Houston I.S.D. students earned 9,774 credits in such courses, which are generally taken in conjunction with a full load of regular classes. About 2,500 more students are enrolled this fall.

Apex Learning provides Houston’s online curriculum; Apex also provides pencil-and-paper tests.

Texas also has raised the maximum age for high school students to 25 and authorized “dropout recovery” charter schools.

T. Jack Blackmon, who heads up the Dallas I.S.D. credit-recovery program, said the old model would continue to crumble.

“It’s the vision for the future as far as I’m concerned: kids going at their own pace,” Mr. Blackmon said. “The traditional school is only good for about a third of the kids, the ones who want football or choir or social activities — kids who have the school bug. For the rest of them, it’s just standing in line, waiting for the factory model to give them an education. A lot of kids don’t want to wait in line.”

While Houston’s grad coaches decide whether students have learned the material and are ready to move on, many districts do not provide that level of support or supervision. In some places, students take computer-generated multiple-choice tests online but don’t have to do any writing to “recover” a class.

‘Credit recovery’ is a cheat

‘Credit recovery’ — after-school classes for failing students — is raising graduation rates by lowering standards, writes Erich Martel, a social studies teacher in Washington, D.C., on Education Gadfly.

In D.C. schools, a student who flunks a class with 120 to 135 seat-time hours can make it up with an 82- to 92-hour hour credit-recovery “class.”  Students who need more teacher attention get less.

Rules ban homework.  All assignments are completed during class time.

During the past two school years, students enrolled in different subjects were assigned to one teacher and grouped in a single classroom. In some cases, non-instructional staff members, such as counselors, were assigned to “teach” CR classes. The clear expectation of school officials responsible for these assignments was that students would spend most of their time completing work sheets with little active teacher instruction.

Many students were simultaneously enrolled in two courses, even though one is the pre-requisite for the other, as in math, Spanish, and French. Some students, mainly ELL/ESOL, were enrolled in as many as three English courses at the same time. CR teachers reported a range of direct and indirect pressure by administrators to pass students enrolled in these courses despite failing grades, extensive absences, and late enrollment.

Credit recovery undercuts the work ethic, while giving students an inflated sense of achievement, Martel writes.

The program is expanding rapidly across the nation. Students get diplomas; administrators get higher graduation rates.  Community colleges get more remedial students.

Online credit recovery is booming

To boost graduation rates, urban school districts are letting students pick up missing credits online, reports Education Week. The good news: That means waiving rules that require “seat time” in a classroom instead of  mastery of a subject.  The bad news: There’s no evidence that online programs work for struggling students. Can kids who failed to focus in a classroom stick with an online course? Are the standards for “mastery” high enough?

New York City, Chicago and Boston are turning to online credit recovery.  Policies differ on whether students can take online courses at home or must go to a school, but districts typically require tests to take place in a supervised setting.

Some 36 states let students to earn high school credits based on proficiency, which may include passing a test or an online course, according to Education Commission for the States. But many districts have stuck with seat-time rules. Capable students might pass out of enough courses to graduate a year or two early.

Seat-time rules are obsolete, says Carmeta P. Vaughan of America’s Promise Alliance, which works to improve graduation rates.

“The notion that students should have to sit in a chair for a certain amount of time when it’s only a certain aspect of algebra they didn’t get baffles me,” Ms. Vaughan said.

Chicago is targeting ninth graders who finish the year short of the normal six credits. Experience shows that students who fall behind in ninth grade are far less likely to graduate.

Boston is using online credit recovery for non-graduating seniors who prefer working at home to attending a traditional summer school.

New York City will introduce online credit-recovery options in 10 schools. The district has approved Apex Learning, Aventa Learning, the Florida Virtual School, CompassLearning and K12 Inc. to provide the courses.  Unlike Chicago and Boston, New York City will require students to sit in classroom computer labs with certified teachers in the room.

When I was reporting for Our School, San Jose was pushing credit-recovery alternative schools based on filling out worksheets. Students were told they could earn double the normal number of credits and get caught up. But very few stuck with it. I’m sure online classes are a lot better, but students who’ve failed classes tend not to be motivated, organized, self-directed learners. I see the potential for a game of let’s pretend: Students pretend they’ve learned, online providers pretend they’ve taught and schools pretend all their graduates have a high school education.