By failing to set standards or even track the use of credit recovery in New York City schools, Chancellor Joel Klein has provided a convenient back door for students to pass courses and graduate without subject mastery. The State Education Department has now capitulated to this agenda by promulgating a draft policy based on unpublicized negotiations with the city Department of Education. If implemented, the policy would do nothing to stem this tide of empty credits but, rather, encourage credit recovery by officially recognizing and regularizing it but with inadequate controls and monitoring.
What is credit recovery? The term is sometimes used technically to denote a formal program, such as summer school, with specified content, attendance, and assessment requirements. But the term is widely applied to any effort to help students pass courses that they would otherwise fail because of incomplete or below-standard work. These students substitute the extra work for regular assessments by writing a paper, taking a test, or providing some other evidence of proficiency in a narrow course topic.
Under the new state policy, schools would need only create a committee (which would not include the student’s teacher) to approve a student’s customized credit recovery plan for a course. The same committee would then review evidence of student proficiency once the plan was completed. The State does not require minimum class attendance or proof that the plan addresses all subject matter deficiencies. If a teacher says a book report suffices to show proficiency, the committee would not need to inquire beyond the teacher’s word. No record of how many courses a student passed using CR would be maintained. There would be no monitoring of assignments’ rigor or the frequency of CR’s use by teachers, schools, or the system as a whole.
What is the problem, though, with giving students a second chance at passing or completing a course by filling in the gaps? First, without standards, there is no way to determine whether credit recovery assignments actually fill those gaps. Second, a course is more than the sum of its parts. For example, a student might fail a test in one unit of geometry and possibly another but if he or she understands other basic geometric concepts, they will likely pass the course. Course failure demonstrates significant overall deficits in factual and conceptual knowledge that a single assignment or mini-course can not erase. But passing the course will mean a lot to the student’s, the teacher’s, and the school’s appearance of success.
Helping students over the hump through credit recovery is not limited to New York City. Nationally, education publishers including Plato and Pearson sell credit recovery kits. But the DOE’s emphasis on data-based accountability, particularly high school credit accumulation and graduation, seems to have resulted in an explosion of credit recovery in New York. Schools are under tremendous pressure, through school report cards’ A-F rating, to produce progress in these metrics.
Credit recovery is a direct route to helping students and schools achieve the 10 credits each year that serve as the DOE’s benchmark of success. Then, with passing grades and a little luck on the Regents — often obtained through narrow and repeated test preparation — students are on pace to graduate. For hundreds of school principals, looking over their shoulders to stay ahead of the peer group against which they are measured, this is a matter of professional life and death. If one principal looks the other way on credit recovery in their schools, others are penalized for more rigorous standards. This race to the bottom will now be officially sanctioned by the State, urged on by Chancellor Klein.
If we do not reject this new policy proposal, more children will seem to be succeeding in high school and more will seem to be graduating with college- and job-readiness. But this will be a mirage. We will be gaming the system for students and administrators alike. We will be saluting proxies rather than real academic achievement.
The Board of Regents needs to put an end to this charade by rejecting this mockery and re-establishing high academic expectations for our youth.
David C. Bloomfield heads the Educational Leadership Program at Brooklyn College, CUNY and is an elected parent member of the Citywide Council on High Schools. He is the author of American Public Education Law.