Online Recovery Courses Show Slightly Weaker Results

(Image: Jisc, Creative Commons)

(Image: Jisc, Creative Commons)

A study from the American Institutes for Research has found that students allowed to retake an online course earned lower passing rates and lower test scores on an end-of-class assessment than students who participated in a traditional in-person class.

The study is the first of its kind to study the effects on student achievement through “online credit recovery.”  The strategy, which is gaining popularity, is pushed as one that is more engaging and interactive than traditional classes by offering students additional opportunities for more individualized feedback and the ability to work at their own pace, reports Anya Kamenetz for NPR.

In all, 1,224 ninth-graders at Chicago Public Schools who failed second semester Algebra I and who had enrolled in summer school in 2011 or 2012 retook the course.  The students were randomly assigned to either an online version of the class or the traditional face-to-face method.

The math class was used for the study because more students were found to fail that course than any other, and those that do fail are also found to be less likely to graduate.  For example, close to one-third of students in Chicago fail either one or both semesters of Algebra I.  Only 15% of those students who failed both semesters of the course in the 2005-06 school year were found to have graduated within four years.

“For some of the most highly at-risk and generally low-achieving students, the study provides some important cautions about online credit recovery,” said Jessica Heppen, a managing researcher at AIR and the study’s lead author. “While many online credit recovery programs are touted for their effectiveness, the evidence for different types of models, particularly those in wide use, is lacking.”

The study, “Back on Track,” looked at a total of 17 Chicago schools which offer 76 credit recovery courses.  Both the online version and the face-to-face versions met on a daily basis for four hours for a total of three to four weeks to meet the 60-hour requirement for the full semester course.  Class size, student characteristics, and prior achievement levels were all the same for all students enrolled.

Students who participated in the online version used a popular curriculum that also makes use of web-based course software, in addition to an online teacher that made regular communication with each student.  Students were also provided with an in-class mentor.

Results from the study show that 31% of the students who enrolled in the online version earned a grade of either A, B, or C, while 53% of those who took the in-person course received the same grades.  Online students were also found to perform at lower levels on an end-of-term assessment that made use of items found on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, earning an average score of 38% in comparison with 40% in the face-to-face course.

A total of 71% of participants in both types of courses ended up recovering their course credit.  However, online students were found to have a lower rate of recovery at 66%, while in-person students held a recovery rate of 76%.

No difference was found in the likelihood of either group earning credit in future math courses or to be on track to graduate high school at the end of their second year of high school.