Does online learning work for LAUSD students taking makeup classes? Study aims to find out

Researchers have received a $3.26-million federal grant to study the effectiveness of online academic credit recovery programs — the kind that allow students to make up failed classes and graduate on time — in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The grant, from the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, will pay for the American Institutes for Research, a nonprofit research group, to study how online makeup courses for Algebra 1 and ninth-grade English compare with retaking the class in person.

“The growing use of online credit recovery for high school students has outpaced the research,” the grant description reads. “As concerns mount over whether students actually learn in online courses, and as questions arise about how to best implement online credit recovery, there is a critical need for rigorous evidence about the effective use of online credit recovery for high school students.”

L.A. Unified has dramatically expanded its online and in-person credit recovery programs since 2015 to come closer to its goal of a 100% graduation rate, drawing concern that not all graduates have achieved the same level of subject knowledge. The results of this study, which will focus on roughly 3,000 students from about 15 high schools throughout the district, could answer some questions that critics have about how rigorous the online courses are.

The students in the study will all be sophomores in the 2017-18 or 2018-19 school years who failed either Algebra 1 or English 9.

They’ll be randomly split into either a traditional face-to-face course or a “prescriptive blended learning” class that uses material from online course provider Edgenuity Inc., taught with an L.A. Unified teacher in the classroom, said Jessica Heppen, the vice president of research and evaluation at AIR. In those classes, the teacher is responsible for providing individualized instruction in the places where the students need help.

The goal is to not just compare online and face-to-face credit recovery options, Heppen said, but also to see how online courses differ depending on the school and teacher. Ideally, the blended learning models should allow teachers to spend more time on individual students’ needs, but the researchers want to know “exactly how they do it and how much variation there is across courses and across schools,” Heppen said.

To compare the outcomes of online and in-person classes, researchers will look at factors such as students’ end-of-course scores, 11th-grade standardized test results, graduation rates and a student experience survey.

The study will build on a similar one that AIR researchers conducted in Chicago, comparing online Algebra 1 credit recovery to summer school. They determined the online course materials to be more rigorous and found that 76% of face-to-face students passed their credit recovery courses, compared with 66% of online students, Heppen said. But students in the face-to-face classes also scored better on an algebra assessment that AIR developed, and the two groups graduated at the same rates three years later.

The researchers and L.A. Unified haven’t yet finalized the list of participating schools, but they’ll be spread across the district, said Oscar Lafarga, the executive director of data and accountability for L.A. Unified.

“We do want to look at the efficacy of online credit recovery courses,” Lafarga said. This study is about “moving past reading research projects from another city or district and having the ability to have our own students be part of the research.”

Reach Sonali Kohli at Sonali.Kohli@latimes.com or on Twitter @Sonali_Kohli.

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