This program turns failures into graduates. NC officials ask: Is it a numbers game?

Credit recovery class instructor Mike Bellissimo helps students focus their online studies during their computer lab at Sanderson High School in Raleigh.
Credit recovery class instructor Mike Bellissimo helps students focus their online studies during their computer lab at Sanderson High School in Raleigh. News & Observer file photo

An online program that has helped boost North Carolina’s high school graduation rate is drawing questions from state education leaders who wonder whether the results are too good to be true.

Thousands of N.C. high school seniors annually pass online credit recovery courses, which allow them to retake parts of classes they failed to earn credits needed for graduation. But credit recovery is now being reviewed as State Board of Education members question what’s happening in these locally run classes around North Carolina.

“I’d love to know how many seniors are utilizing this as a way to cross over that line to say, ‘I graduated’ and take a course in two weeks,” state board member Becky Taylor said at Tuesday’s meeting. “Sometimes it makes you wonder if there’s a little bit of a numbers game going on.”

“ ‘We’ve got to have these kids graduating.’ I hear this from teachers and that is very concerning to me that may be the way we’re utilizing this in our districts,” Taylor said.

The state’s graduation rate rose to a record 86.5 percent this past school year. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools did even better, at 89.4 percent. School districts have credited programs such as credit recovery with helping keep more students on track for graduation.

Amid the potential concerns about credit recovery, the state Department of Public Instruction plans to do a statewide survey of school districts and charter schools and potentially recommend policy changes to the state board. CMS just completed a similar review, putting new practices in place this year to ensure consistency in all schools and reduce opportunities for error or fraud.

North Carolina public school students who fail a high school course have two options. They can retake the entire course to try to change the grade.

The other option is credit recovery, in which students only retake parts of the course to get a pass/fail grade. If they successfully complete that portion, they get credit for the class but the original grade remains on the transcript.

In 2017, 8 percent of approximately 9,000 CMS graduates had at least one credit recovery course on their transcript. Only 74 students, or less than 1 percent, had four or more, a district review found.

“It really is an opportunity for students who have failed a course to focus on aspects of a course that they were not able to originally master,” Sneha Shah-Coltrane, DPI director of advanced learning and gifted education, told the state board on Tuesday.

Shah-Coltrane said 18,601 high school students, representing 3.8 percent of the state’s high school students, enrolled in at least one credit recovery course during the 2015-16 school year. She said that 64 percent of students passed, 25 percent failed and 11 percent were marked incomplete.

This past school year, Shah-Coltrane said that 2.9 percent of high school students statewide enrolled in credit recovery courses at the passing rate was 58 percent.

A.L. Collins, vice chairman of the state board, questioned how so many students who failed a course given by a teacher were able to pass on their own “self study.”

“Either we’ve got some really good credit recovery going on or perhaps the people who are concerned about our credit recovery have reason to be concerned,” Collins said. “I hope it’s the former and not the latter.”

Credit recovery programs have been questioned both nationally and in this state.

Early this school year, CMS Superintendent Clayton Wilcox ordered a review after a WBTV, the Observer’s news partner, aired anonymous questions about whether credit recovery was helping “failing students” claim diplomas.

District officials said the audit determined there were not systemic problems with abuse of the credit recovery system. But CMS retrained teachers and administrators in the program, stepped up monitoring of the program and new requires credit recovery testing to be supervised by a proctor.

Lindalyn Kakadelis, director of education outreach for the John Locke Foundation, is a longtime critic of credit recovery who said she’s glad the issue is on the state board’s radar. The former CMS board member said teachers have told her how students say they don’t have to listen to them because they can take credit recovery to pass.

“If the attitude of the student is they don’t care about the GPA (grade point average), they’ll take the credit recovery to graduate,” Kakadelis said.

State board member Eric Davis, who is also a member of the CMS board, said teachers have voiced concerns to him about how they’ve made a decision about a student’s performance, only to realize later that the student got credit without the teacher having a voice in the decision.

“We really need to better understand how it’s being implemented across the state,” he said.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui