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Time lost, credit earned

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Public schools in New York may award an unlimited amount of credits to students who make up missed work in a credit recovery program. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Claudia Snell.

By MARIAH SUMMERS

The New York State Board of Regents approved legislation on April 19 that, for the first time in the board’s history, created standards for public high schools that allow students to make up lost credits toward graduation.

The regulations will require students in credit recovery programs to pass the associated Regent’s Exam in the subject area they have failed, but only “when applicable.”

In addition, other measures will attempt to standardize the practice of credit recovery in all public high schools, which is described by New York State Education Department documents as repeating an entire course either during the academic year or in summer school, or receiving intensive instruction in parts of the course the student missed or failed. The legislation places no limit on the amount of credits that can be obtained through credit recovery programs.

Some critics believe regulations lack not only clarity, but rigor. “When applicable” could mean that administration of a Regents Exam could be left up to the teacher’s discretion or a students may receive credit for a course they have failed if they passed the associated Regents test experts say. They argue that the standards will not help students learn the subject matter any better, and may cause them to fall even further behind in future classes and college programs.

“In regularizing a credit recovery process, the state is essentially encouraging the process,” said David Bloomfield, program head of educational leadership at Brooklyn College. “It means a large number of students will fail their courses, do some sort of project on a small element of that course, pass it, whatever that means, and get credit for the course. Most teachers will do anything to try and get a kid to pass a class, some of these kids just really haven’t gotten it.”

Bloomfield added that the new regulations do not require schools to keep records that credit recovery has taken place. There is no way of telling how many of a student’s graduation credits were earned by taking the regular course, and how many were recovered later. The city’s Department of Education does not keep such records and would have no incentive to do so given these new laws.

With no data on record, it is difficult to find hard numbers on the practice of credit recovery in the city. But data suggests that the programs are widely used. Many schools boast graduation rates that are much higher than the percentage of students who earn the average of 10 credits per year over for consecutive years required to graduate with 44 credits.

At Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing Arts in Harlem for example, the graduation rate last year was 71 percent, even though only 65 percent of students were on track to graduate with the 10 credit-per-year average after their third year at the school.

Similarly, at the Adlai E. Stevenson campus of Bronx Guild, the graduation rate last year was 58 percent, even though only 49 percent of students had the requisite credit average to graduate in four years going into their senior year.

Neither school would return phone calls for comment about their credit recovery programs, but at Independence High School in Manhattan, Vice Principal Edward Feuerstein acknowledged the use of credit recovery at his school, which had a graduation rate in 2009 of 49.5 percent, even though only 32.9 percent of students had at least 31 credits at the beginning of their senior year.

“The whole thing is pretty much a scandal.”

- Marc Epstein

“Of course we use credit recovery,” Feuerstein said. “Everybody uses it, we need it.” He would not elaborate on what his school’s program entails, but believes his students benefit from their credit recovery work.

At Jamaica High School in Queens, the credit recovery program is only two years old, but was implemented just before December when the Chancellor announced that the school would be shut down for poor performance. A judge recently reversed that decision for the time being, but credit recovery seems to be giving students a chance to earn their missed credits in a way that pushes them to learn. The school has a four-year graduation rate of 46.2 percent, and a six-year graduation rate of 57.8 percent.

“We’re adhering to the standards for getting course credit and they’re shutting us down anyway,” said Marc Epstein, a social studies teacher at Jamaica High School. “It’s a joke in other schools. What they’re doing is trying to get people out of high school and give them a diploma. There’s supposed to be seat time, and there are some students who never even went to class or went once and they’ll get the credit for it.”

“The whole thing is pretty much a scandal,” said Epstein.

Advocates for the State Board of Regents’ proposed standardization of credit recovery program argue that the programs give students a chance to graduate who may otherwise drop out or give up on the idea of higher education altogether during their high school years.

“It validates a process which many, many schools have practiced for decades, including some of the most prestigious private schools in the country,” said Stephen Phillips, coordinator for the Teaching Fellows program at Brooklyn College. “Rather than failing an entire course because of deficiencies in one area, the student can complete those areas and earn credit for the course.”

Phillips went on to add that credit recovery is no more susceptible to misuse than any other evaluation system in public education.

“Critics seem obsessed with the possibility that schools will ‘abuse’ the practice of credit recovery,” said Phillips. “But I frankly don’t see more potential for abuse of this practice than any other grading practice or examination practice.”

Since the Department of Education doesn’t keep track of its schools’ credit recovery data, mapping out its effects on students is difficult to quantify. But for many English and math professors at community colleges in the City University of New York (CUNY) system, they’re finding many of their students unprepared to handle the rigors of college-level work.

“We’re finding students are coming in unprepared,” said Frederic De Naples, the chairman of the English Department at Bronx Community College. “Something’s going on there.”

According to CUNY’s Office of Institutional Research, 76 percent of entering freshmen into CUNY community colleges in 2007 were placed in remedial classes for reading, math or writing because they failed the CUNY Skills Test, a standardized test that determines whether students are placed in remedial classes.

As for the quality of learning in credit recovery programs, critics believe that it suffers because students need to only learn part of the course content, not fully master it.

“Let’s say you fail geometry and you need credit recovery,” Bloomfield said. “If the teacher then says you need to learn how to find the area of a circle to pass, gives you the formula, and you learn how to do it, you’ve just passed an entire year’s worth of geometry.”

In fact, a city Department of Education memo sent to superintendents, network leaders, and high school principals and assistant principals, said that credit for two or more subject areas in one make-up course is allowed under current standards.

“It can be a valuable form of instruction,” said former Deputy Chancellor Taveras in the 2009 memo.

Bloomfield said this kind of compartmentalized learning of a subject area is the major flaw in nearly all credit recovery programs.

“This Regents scheme permits a teacher to isolate a particular portion of the curriculum, and then take an assessment, and somehow allow the student to pass the course,” he said. “Most classes are more than just the sum of their parts.”

About Mariah:
Mariah Summers, 23, was born and raised just outside of Portland, Ore. in the suburb of West Linn. She attended the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon in Eugene for her undergraduate degree, where she majored in News/Editorial Journalism. During college, Mariah wrote for the student newspaper, The Oregon Daily Emerald, and had internships at two newspapers in Portland: The Portland Tribune and the alternative weekly paper Willamette Week. She spent a summer at Dateline NBC in New York and currently interns at the New York Daily News. During her time with CoveringEducation.org, Mariah will be covering early childhood education and is embedded in the Ella Baker School on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
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