NC students who fail classes can still graduate. But is the online program being abused?

Credit recovery class instructor Mike Bellissimo, standing, helps students, grades 9-12 focus their online studies during the second half of their computer lab at Sanderson High School, Raleigh, NC on Sept. 1, 2016.
Credit recovery class instructor Mike Bellissimo, standing, helps students, grades 9-12 focus their online studies during the second half of their computer lab at Sanderson High School, Raleigh, NC on Sept. 1, 2016. News & Observer file photo

An online program that has helped boost North Carolina’s high school graduation rate is drawing questions from state education leaders who wonder whether the results are too good to be true.

Thousands of N.C. high school seniors annually pass online credit recovery courses, which allow them to retake parts of classes they failed to earn credits needed for graduation. But credit recovery is now being reviewed as State Board of Education members question what’s happening in these locally run classes around North Carolina.

“I’d love to know how many seniors are utilizing this as a way to cross over that line to say I graduated and take a course in two weeks,” board member Becky Taylor said at Tuesday’s meeting. “Sometimes it makes you wonder if there’s a little bit of a numbers game going on.

 ‘We’ve got to have these kids graduating.’ I hear this from teachers, and that is very concerning to me that may be the way we’re utilizing this in our districts.”

The state’s graduation rate rose to a record 86.5 percent this past school year. School districts have touted programs such as credit recovery with helping keep more students on track for graduation.

Amid the potential concerns about credit recovery, the state Department of Public Instruction plans to do a statewide survey of school districts and charter schools and potentially recommend policy changes to the state board.

North Carolina public school students who fail a high school course have two options. They can retake the entire course or they can use credit recovery, in which students only retake parts of the course online to get a pass/fail grade. If they successfully complete that portion, they get credit for it, but the original grade remains on the transcript.

VIDEO: Sanderson High School Principal Greg Decker and staff announce their senior graduation rate for this year at 89.1 percent, a 7.7 percent increase over last year. Sanderson staff have been improving their school plan, working with students o

“It really is an opportunity for students who have failed a course to focus on aspects of a course that they were not able to originally master,” Sneha Shah-Coltrane, director of advanced learning and gifted education for the state Department of Public Instruction, told the state board on Tuesday.

Shah-Coltrane said 18,601 high school students, representing 3.8 percent of the state’s high school students, enrolled in at least one credit recovery course during the 2015-16 school year. She said 64 percent of students passed, 25 percent failed and 11 percent were marked incomplete.

This past school year, Shah-Coltrane said, 2.9 percent of high school students statewide enrolled in credit recovery courses and the passing rate was 58 percent.

A.L. Collins, vice chairman of the state board, questioned how so many students who failed a course given by a teacher were able to pass on their own “self study.”

“Either we’ve got some really good credit recovery going on or perhaps the people who are concerned about our credit recovery have reason to be concerned,” Collins said. “I hope it’s the former and not the latter.”

Credit recovery programs have been questioned both nationally and in North Carolina.

Early this school year, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox ordered a review after a TV station aired anonymous questions about whether credit recovery was helping “failing students” claim diplomas.

District officials said the audit determined there was not systemic problems with abuse of the credit recovery system. But Charlotte-Mecklenburg is tightening and standardizing its approach to credit recovery.

Lindalyn Kakadelis, director of education outreach for the John Locke Foundation and a longtime critic of credit recovery, said she was glad the issue is on the state board’s radar. The former Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board member said teachers have told her students say they don’t have to listen to them because they can take credit recovery to pass.

“If the attitude of the student is they don’t care about the GPA (grade point average), they’ll take the credit recovery to graduate,” Kakadelis said.

State board member Eric Davis said teachers have voiced concerns to him about how they make a decision about a student’s performance and then realize later that the student got credit.

“We really need to better understand how it’s being implemented across the state,” he said.

Ann Doss Helms of the Charlotte Observer contributed.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui