Because of new rules designed to raise graduation standards, officials of the Los Angeles Unified School District woke up in December to the grim news that only half of its students were on track to graduate, down from 74% the year before. The problem was that this was the first year all students had to pass the full range of college-prep courses — known as the A through G sequence – required by the University of California and California State University for admission.
But just a couple of months later, the situation suddenly, startlingly improved, with 63% on track to graduate. By the end of March, 68% had completed their A-G courses, and an additional 15% were close enough that they might be able to make it. The actual graduation rate will not be known for several months.
How did this remarkable turnaround happen, and what does it mean?
Partly, it was that Michelle King, LA Unified's new superintendent, moved swiftly and decisively, plunging the district's high schools into a full-bore effort to bring students up to snuff, with extra counseling, Saturday classes and after-school classes.
But also, the district relied heavily on what are known as online credit-recovery classes. These courses, which have helped boost graduation rates locally and across the country, have grown quickly from a barely known concept a decade ago to one of the biggest and most controversial new trends in education.
This is how they work: Students who flunk a course can make up the credit by taking classes either in computer-equipped rooms at school, or at home if they have the equipment and Internet access. Teachers lecture on videos, the computer displays the readings or practice problems, and students take tests that are automatically graded. Written work is supposed to be reviewed by a district teacher. The courses have certain benefits: Students can replay a lecture for missed material, something that can't happen in a regular classroom. When they can't concentrate any longer, they can put the course on hold and take a break.
But professors and other education experts are concerned that there is too little quality control to ensure that students have completed the equivalent of a regular classroom experience.
Considering all the credit-recovery courses provided by educational publishers, it's impossible to say as a rule whether these courses are sufficiently rigorous. Only one large-scale study has been published: Researchers reported in April that Chicago students who were randomly assigned to take an online Algebra I makeup course fared somewhat worse than those who were assigned to classroom makeup courses, with lower pass rates and lower scores on an end-of-course assessment. And an online credit-recovery course observed by Russell Rumberger, director of the California Dropout Research Project at UC Santa Barbara, required only 12 hours of computer time and the reading of one book.
LAUSD maintains that's not the case with its programs, which it says are rigorous and effective and take about 60 hours of work.
In order to get a closer look, a Los Angeles Times editorial writer arranged to take one of the courses offered to students at LAUSD: English Language Arts 11A, commonly known as the first semester of junior-year English. The results were at the same time reassuring and potentially disturbing.
Any student who actually takes the full course — sits through each lesson, answers the questions and completes the assignments — gets a meaningful education. That's why UC accepts the course, produced by Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Edgenuity, as a college-prep class. The reading excerpts come from fine and often challenging literature — "Moby-Dick," "The Scarlet Letter," great poetry and the like. Video lectures give the background of the works and teach lessons about tone, setting, vocabulary choice and so forth. There are four writing assignments during each semester. All in all, it would easily take 50 or 60 hours or more.
The catch is that taking the full course isn't always necessary. Some students are able to pre-test out of much of the course, including the writing.
A 10-question multiple-choice quiz is given at the beginning of each of the three-dozen units. With a score of 60% or better — six of the questions — a student passes the unit, without having to go through the lectures, read the full materials or write the essays. Opening up other tabs on the computer to search for answers on the Internet is allowed. That's not really cheating: The questions aren't about straightforward facts. Students must interpret passages, for instance. But there's plenty of help online via Sparks notes and other resources, and a full hour is given to answer the 10 questions.
A second problem with the course is that no full books are assigned in the first semester; the second semester requires just one book. That's the minimum required by UC, but significantly fewer than most junior-year classroom-based courses. Carol Alexander, director of college-prep requirements at LAUSD, said there's only one book required because the students have already taken the course in class and read books there. But if they flunked the course in class, what reason is there to believe that they did the reading or understood it?
Frances Gipson, the district's chief academic officer, said that not all students get the opportunity to pre-test out of all the units in the course. Students are not supposed to be allowed to skip sections that they did poorly on the first time, she said.
That might be true. But two students at Fremont High School who took the same junior English course described nearly identical experiences. Both said they had pre-tested out of most of the units. One said he had been given only one writing assignment, and the other said he had been given one or two over both semesters — only a fraction of those the course supposedly requires.
L.A. Unified appears to be setting the bar lower than most districts across the nation. Edgenuity says that of the 1,900 districts using the company's credit-recovery courses, most will not allow students in English classes to pre-test out of units. Districts that do allow skipping of units through pre-testing often require the students at least to do the writing assignments, and they monitor the tests so students can't search the Internet for clues. And most districts set the passing grade for the pre-test at 70% or higher in contrast to L.A. Unified's 60%.
The big issue is the lack of accountability. The district has a vested interest in raising graduation rates and making the A-G policy look good. But who checks that students are getting enough online coursework to receive a meaningful education? Who sets the standard, if there is any standard, for the minimum amount of work that must be put into an online course to receive credit?
A UC official also was surprised to learn that students might be pre-testing out of most of the units in any course. Monica Lin, associate director for undergraduate admissions, said UC doesn't supervise how local school districts use their courses and doesn't have the time and resources to conduct regular audits even if it wanted to. She added that the university would reconsider approval if it knew that large numbers of students were pre-testing their way through most of the course.
Her instincts are right. If large numbers of students are indeed testing out of significant portions of these courses — which is difficult to ascertain — and if they're skipping writing assignments on a regular basis, then those students are being done a serious disservice. If they're just reading one book in a year in what's supposed to be the equivalent of a junior-year English course, that's unacceptable too — and raises worrisome questions about the rest of the credit-recovery courses being offered as well.
L.A. Unified deserves credit for its intensive attempt to raise its graduation rates. Online credit recovery can and should be a helpful tool, giving students independence, flexibility and a chance to make up for past mistakes.
But the district needs to get a handle on these courses. It — along with UC and the State Board of Education — needs to set minimum standards, including how much of a course must be completed without pre-testing in order to earn credit.
The new federal school-accountability law that replaced the No Child Left Behind Act places considerable pressure on low-performing high schools and their districts to raise graduation rates. But that's a worthy goal only if students are better educated than they were as dropouts.
No one is doing teenagers a favor by sending them to college or into the work world thinking they have skills that are still lacking.
This piece is the first in a two-part series.