Research: Credit Recovery Students Do Worse in Online Algebra Classes than Face-to-Face

Summer school students studying Algebra I online for credit recovery don't do as well as those in traditional classes. The results of a study done by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) and the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research found that more students in the face-to-face courses earned passing grades and scored higher in end-of-course assessments than learners doing their studies strictly online.

The research project involved 1,224 students in grade 9 attending 17 public schools in Chicago, all of whom failed second semester Algebra I. They all enrolled in summer schools during 2011 or 2012 to make up the course and were randomly assigned to either online or face-to-face instruction. The study encompassed 76 classes evenly split between online and face-to-face. Both classes met every day for about four hours for three to four weeks. Class size, student characteristics and prior achievement levels were comparable for all of the students.

The authors focused on that course particularly, they reported, because it heralds the prospect of whether or not a student will earn a high school degree. Those who fail are less likely to graduate. In Chicago, specifically, about a third of ninth graders fail one or both semesters of the course. Among those students who failed both semesters of Algebra I during 2005-2006, only 15 percent ended up graduating within four years.

The research organizations are calling this study the "first major examination" of student success in the use of online programs for credit recovery, a practice that is gaining a reputation as being more engaging and offering a more personalized approach for students. In fact, they noted, online study for credit recovery is one of the fastest expanding areas for K-12 education. Online credit recovery practices vary from those courses with virtual labs and little teacher input to versions that include labs with intensive one-on-one online tutoring.

In this project, the online courses used a popular packaged curriculum from Fuel Education (formerly Aventa) that included Web-based course software and an online teacher who communicated individually with students. Students in these sections also had an in-class mentor, a common best practice pushed among online course providers.

As the study reported:

  • Three in 10 (31 percent) of students in the online course earned an A, B or C grade compared to 53 percent in the face-to-face course;
  • The online students scored lower on end-of-course assessments (with 38 percent of the questions answered correctly) compared to those in the traditional classes (40 percent). The exams used items that appeared previously on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the organization that issues the Nation's Report Card;
  • Seven in 10 (71 percent) of students in both kinds of courses recovered credit, but the rate was lower for online students than face-to-face students (66 percent vs. 76 percent);
  • People in the online courses found the course to be "significantly more difficult" and class expectations "less clear" than students in the traditional classes. The online students also reported "significantly lower enjoyment of and confidence" in the subject of math. The one area where they did show a more positive experience was with their comfort in using a computer; and
  • The researchers found no differences between the two groups in terms of their likelihood to earn credit in subsequent math classes or to be on track for graduation by the end of their second year in high school. Overall, however, students in both types of courses had "generally low-performing trajectories."

"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, in a prepared statement. "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," was funded with a grant from the United States Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences. The results were shared at the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association in Washington, D.C. A longer article on the study will soon appear in the Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness.

The research brief, "Getting Back on Track: Comparing the Effects of Online and Face-to-Face Credit Recovery in Algebra I," is available on the AIR website.

An additional paper released by the project studied the role of class mentors in online credit recovery. "Getting Back on Track: The Role of In-Person Instructional Support for Students Taking Online Credit Recovery," offered three key findings:

  • Roughly 40 percent of the online classes studied in the project had "in-class" mentors to provide extra instructional support, which was defined as spending at least 12 hours of the 60-hour program answering students' questions about math;
  • Those instructors deemed as "instructionally supportive" were more likely to be certified math teachers; and
  • Although students with instructionally supportive mentors took fewer tests in the online course, they were "slightly" more successful on the tests they took. They also had higher credit recovery rates than the students with less instructional support from mentors.

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