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Provider of online credit recovery courses at LAUSD says curriculum is ‘very rigorous’ despite criticism

Craig Clough | September 7, 2016

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GRADUATIONAfter LA Unified skyrocketed from a projected 49 percent graduation rate last fall to a record-setting 75 percent for the 2015-16 school year, academic experts, California public universities, editorial boards and even the school board president are all asking hard questions about one major aspect of the turnaround — online credit recovery.

How rigorous are those courses? Do they affect the value of an LA Unified diploma?

A vice president of one of LA Unified’s main vendors of credit recovery, Edgenuity, said that no districts around the country have asked for their courses to be more rigorous, and they work with thousands of them.

“I don’t think anyone has ever looked at our courses and said these aren’t hard enough. The courses themselves are very rigorous. There is not a need to make our courses harder,” said Deborah Rayow, vice president of Core Curriculum and Credit Recovery for Edgenuity.

What is part of the discussion, Rayow said, is “what should be considered passing? How much of this do you need to master in order to earn a credit? And that’s something traditional and online teachers ask themselves all the time.”

Edgenuity provides online courses to districts in all 50 states — and credit recovery courses to eight of the 10 largest districts in the nation, including LA Unified, Chicago Public Schools and Miami-Dade County Public Schools. Besides credit recovery courses, the company offers a wide variety of others, including Advanced Placement or elective courses not available at a school. This school year, as part of LA Unified’s $15 million credit recovery program, Edgenuity signed a $400,000 contract with the district to provide online courses and training for teachers to administer them.

In the online credit recovery program, students who failed or received a D in a course can take an accelerated online version of the course during free periods, after school, on Saturdays, at summer school or during vacation breaks. A teacher either runs the class along with a computer program, known as blended learning, or the course is taught entirely online, known as virtual learning. If students prove proficient with the material, they receive a C grade; an A or B is not an option.

Some of the recent criticism of LA Unified’s online credit recovery courses stems from the ability of students to “pre-test” out of a course and skip much of the curriculum. Rayow said what constitutes a pre-test pass, or whether to offer pre-testing at all, is determined by the district, not Edgenuity. She said what districts choose for a pre-testing standard varies widely.

“It is always up to the district. We are a provider of curriculum and tools. We don’t make decisions about district policies,” she said.

While defending LA Unified’s decision to use online credit recovery, school board President Steve Zimmer said he is skeptical of the courses and thinks they should be looked at harder by the district, though he did not specify what a review might look like over the next year. Zimmer said he sat in on a few online credit recovery classes and found the coursework to be rigorous and the students to be learning.

“Am I concerned that they are looking at this? No, I think they should look at it,” Zimmer said when asked about reports that the University of California system is reviewing online credit recovery courses to see if they will be accepted for admittance into its colleges. “I am very skeptical of online recovery programs. I’m very skeptical of online instruction, period. But am I skeptical in the literal sense? I am not a Luddite on it. I’m not reactively opposed to it.”

A spokesperson for the UC system said the review will not impact the admission status of students who have been accepted to UC schools starting this fall.

Rayow stressed that Edgenuity simply provides curriculum and that the threshold for passing a course and how much a student needs to master is always up to the district.

“The rules are the right rules, so the question of what is the right passing threshold and should you allow kids to pre-test out of certain types of activities, those are great questions that all districts ask themselves, and that they ask us and that we ask districts,” Rayow said.

However, Rayow did defend the practice of pre-testing and said it is essential.

“We don’t want to waste a student’s time figuring out how to do the Pythagorean theorem when they are saying, ‘I know this, I know this, just give me the test so that I can show you.’ And that’s what pre-testing is there for. It is not a way to skip the content and get an easy grade. It is time efficient,” she said.

When asked to respond to the criticism that LA Unified’s graduation turnaround last school year was too extensive and rapid to be rigorous, Rayow said, “There is certainly always going to be criticism of any way that lets students earn a credit when they shouldn’t. The question is what constitutes earning a credit.”

She added, “I’m proud of the work Edgenuity does. I think we help a lot of kids across the country. But I am wary to ever take credit for the successes of any district, because ultimately it is the district that drives the success. We are proud to be partners with our districts, but they all implement Edgenuity differently. They all own their own successes. We are just along for the ride.”

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