The Back on Track Study: Using Online Courses for Credit Recovery

April, 2016
Suzanne Taylor (American Institutes for Research [AIR]), Peggy Clements (AIR), Jessica Heppen (AIR), Jordan Rickles (AIR), Nicholas Sorensen (AIR), Kirk Walters (AIR), Elaine Allensworth (Consortium), and Valerie Michelman (Consortium)

Failing core academic courses during the first year of high school is a strong signal of trouble to come; course failures during ninth grade are associated with notable declines in four-year graduation rates. To get back on track, students who fail classes need opportunities to recover credit. Historically, students retook required classes in summer school or during the school year in a face-to-face setting. Recently, online learning has emerged as a popular strategy for credit recovery. Providing credit recovery opportunities is now one of the most common purposes for offering online courses in K–12 educational settings. Offering online credit recovery can provide flexibility for schools and students, and online courses are promoted as more engaging and interactive than face-to-face classes and providing individualized feedback and pacing. However, evidence about the efficacy of online credit recovery is lacking.The “Back on Track” study, funded through a grant by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, was conducted by AIR and the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.

It examines the use of online courses to provide students who fail Algebra I in the ninth grade with the opportunity to recover credit for the course. The study is a randomized controlled trial that followed ninth grade students in Chicago Public Schools from the summer after failing Algebra I through potential graduation four years later. The study was designed to provide information for districts around the country faced with decisions about offering credit recovery course options. 

Findings from the study are available in a series of research briefs:

The first brief of the series, Comparing the Effects of Online and Face-to-Face Credit Recovery in Algebra I, summarizes findings from an experimental study that tested the impact of online Algebra I for credit recovery against the standard face-to-face version of the course for students in Chicago Public Schools who failed the course during their first year of high school.

Key Findings:

  • Students found the online course more difficult and had more negative attitudes about mathematics than students in the face-to-face course.
  • Online course students had lower algebra assessment scores, grades, and credit recovery rates than face-to-face course students.
  • Longer-term academic outcomes were not significantly different for students in the online and face-to-face credit recovery courses.

The second brief, The Role of In-Person Instructional Support for Students Taking Online Credit Recovery, describes the role of the in-class mentors who supervised students taking the online course as part of the Back on Track study, which is designed to provide much-needed evidence for practitioners and policymakers to inform decisions about how to help students get back on track toward high school graduation.  The online course was provided by a popular online provider, Aventa/K12, and it was taught by an online teacher whom the students did not meet in person, but who communicated with students individually and through class message boards.

Key Findings:

  • Instructionally supportive mentors were more likely to be certified mathematics teachers than mentors who provided little to no instructional support.
  • Students with instructionally supportive mentors were similar to students with less instructionally supportive mentors.
  • Students with instructionally supportive mentors took fewer tests in the online course, but were slightly more successful on the tests they took.
  • Students with instructionally supportive mentors had higher credit recovery rates than students with less-instructionally supportive mentors, and credit recovery rates were similar to their face-to-face counterparts.

The third brief, Getting Back on Track: Who Needs to Recover Algebra Credit After Ninth Grade?, describes the characteristics of students who failed Algebra I in ninth grade in the large urban school district where the study took place, to better understand the population of students who are served by credit recovery courses.

Key Findings:

  • Students who failed Algebra I entered high school with greater preexisting math and reading deficits.
  • Students who failed Algebra I exhibited greater school disengagement warning signs during ninth grade in terms of attendance and discipline issues.
  • Students who failed Algebra I were much more likely to have failed multiple courses during ninth grade.

The fourth brief, What Math Content is Taught and Learned in Online and Face-to-Face Algebra Credit Recovery Courses?, evaluates the content provided in online and face-to-face algebra credit recovery courses and reveals possible differences based on instructor preferences and district guidelines.

Key Findings:

  • All of the online course content covered second-semester (Algebra IB) topics, whereas only 50% of the content in the face-to-face classes covered Algebra IB topics. The other 50% of the content in the face-to-face classes addressed a mix of prealgebra and first-semester (Algebra IA) topics.
  • The online course content followed a conventional sequence, within and across Algebra IB units. In contrast, 70% of the content in the face-to-face classes followed a conventional sequence; the other 30% of the face-to-face content appeared to be sequenced haphazardly.
  • Students in the online course on average completed less than two thirds of the course and struggled on end-of-unit assessments within the course.
  • Students’ grades were lower in the online course than in the face-to-face classes. Less than one third of online students earned a grade of “C” or higher, compared with more than half of students in face-to-face classes. Tests and quizzes accounted for about 60% of students’ final grades in the online course, compared with about 50% in the face-to-face classes.
  • Student scores on the end-of-course algebra test administered for this study were low overall in both types of courses. However, students In the online course scored significantly lower than the face-to-face students on this assessment, including lower on prealgebra, Algebra IA, and Algebra IB item sets.

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