Students Using “Online Credit Recovery” to Make Up Freshman Algebra Fare Less Well than Peers in Traditional Classroom, AIR Study Finds

Washington, D.C. — An American Institutes for Research (AIR) study of the efficacy of using online course material to recover Algebra I credit after failing the course found that students using this method had lower pass rates and lower scores on an end-of-course assessment than students assigned to a traditional face-to-face classroom.

The study is the first major examination of the effects on student achievement of what has come to be called “online credit recovery,” a popular strategy often promoted as more engaging and interactive than face-to-face classes and one that offers greater opportunities for individualized feedback and pacing.

A total of 1,224 ninth-graders in the Chicago Public Schools who failed second semester Algebra I enrolled in summer school in 2011 or 2012 to make up the course and were randomly assigned by lottery to online or face-to-face instruction. The study focused on Algebra I because more students fail that course than any other, and those who fail Algebra I are particularly unlikely to graduate. In Chicago, for example, roughly one-third of ninth graders fail one or both semesters of the course. Only 15 percent of students who failed both semesters of Algebra I in ninth grade during the 2005-06 school year graduated in 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 “Back on Track” study, funded through a grant by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, was conducted by AIR and the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. The study results will be presented in a series of briefs, two of which are being published today. Participating AIR researchers also will discuss aspects of their work at a symposium on Saturday, April 9, 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.

Online credit recovery offerings—ranging from virtual labs that have almost no teacher input to models that blend virtual lessons with one-on-one tutoring—have grown increasingly popular. Recent studies have show that credit recovery ranks among the fastest growing areas of K-12 online education, and school districts use online courses for this purpose more than any other.

The AIR study focused on 17 Chicago schools offering 76 credit recovery classes, split evenly between online and face-to-face delivery. Both classes met daily for about four hours per day for three to four weeks, meeting the 60-hour requirement for a full-semester course. Class size, student characteristics, and prior achievement levels were the same for all the students enrolled.

The online courses employed a widely used packaged curriculum that came with web-based course software and an online teacher who communicated individually with students. Students in these sections also had an in-class mentor, as strongly encouraged by this and other online course providers.

Among the study’s findings:

  • Thirty-one percent of students in the online course earned an A, B or C grade—in comparison with 53 percent in the face-to-face course.
  • Students in the online course scored lower on an end-of-course assessment using items that appeared previously on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, answering 38 percent correctly, in comparison with 40 percent in the face-to-face course.
  • In all, 71 percent of study participants in the two types of courses recovered credit, but online students had a significantly lower credit recovery rate—66 percent—in comparison with 76 percent of students in the more traditional classroom.
  • Students in the online credit recovery class considered the course to be significantly more difficult and grading expectations less clear than did students in the face-to-face course. Online students also reported significantly lower enjoyment of and confidence in mathematics. The one experience that was reportedly more positive for the online students was their comfort with computers.
  • There were no differences between the two groups in terms of their likelihood to earn credit in subsequent mathematics classes or to be on track for graduation at the end of the second year of high school.

Besides a brief summarizing the study’s findings, an additional “Back on Track Study” paper released examines in-class mentors’ role in online credit recovery.

Papers in the Back on Track study can be found at

About AIR
Established in 1946, with headquarters in Washington, D.C., the American Institutes for Research (AIR) is a nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts behavioral and social science research and delivers technical assistance both domestically and internationally in the areas of health, education and workforce productivity. For more information, visit


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