The COVID-19 pandemic presented unprecedented challenges for pre-college students trying to complete their education. Particularly for the classes of 2021, 2022, and 2023, staff shortages and student disengagement have led to record numbers of students failing courses. As a result, the American education system presented the option for online credit recovery, internet-based curriculums passed through multiple choice questions. These online options offer a chance to take courses remotely and stay on track to graduate. 

As a school superintendent, it is my responsibility to ensure that our principals, teachers, and central office staff are equipped with the latest skills and knowledge to create a proactive and informed learning environment for our students. Ongoing professional development (PD) remains paramount in an industry as multifaceted and ever-changing as education. However, the quality of such instruction is crucial, as it can quickly create a countereffect if mishandled.

While credit recovery has increased graduation rates over time, both before and during the pandemic, there are clear pros and cons. It is about 50 percent less expensive to offer an online option, but in-person learning has better results overall. Live interaction benefits students because of teachers who can monitor student progress and provide encouragement. 

The Upside

Pre-pandemic, online credit recovery courses helped dramatically improve high school graduation rates from less than 70 percent in 2007 to more than 84 percent in 2016. Some estimates show that as much as 15 percent of students used credit recovery to help complete high school. The software also saved school districts money because it was cheaper than hiring teachers, making administrators feel accomplished in times that would only get more challenging.

During the pandemic, organizations like those part of Help Kids Recover are helping states implement credit recovery programs for elementary schoolers who are falling behind. While these programs present similar challenges and advantages, underachieving late high schoolers are the group that needs help the most. 

The Downside

Passing a credit recovery course can provide a false sense of security for districts whose graduation rates increase. A study in 2021 showed that students who graduated thanks to credit recovery earned less in the job market, proving that passing an online class does not seem to provide students with the necessary skills to succeed in the real world. Journalists have uncovered poor instructional materials and cheating scandals. Research has shown that students were learning less online than in person.

In addition, certain subjects are often not well-absorbed in a virtual format, leaving students with the same lack of knowledge with which they began studying the subject matter. Very few students who complete online courses show proficiency on their state assessments. Many also fail the classes for the first time or sometimes even repeatedly. In many school districts, getting funds for vetting credit recovery vendors is arduous. 

Despite the obstacles, pressure is higher than ever to fix high failure rates, staff shortages, and continued absenteeism, making administrations scramble for solutions that stick. 


No matter the quality of the online course, face-to-face instruction is irreplaceable. The credit recovery courses are not regulated enough to ensure high quality for the students. Tailoring them specifically to individual student needs would be more beneficial than having them repeat entire courses. The top ways to improve the success of credit recovery are: 

  1. Individualized course loads Credit recovery courses let students test out of specific modules, hastening their completion and decreasing fatigue and burnout. Some programs are competency-based, allowing students to focus on the knowledge they have not yet gained rather than retaking entire courses.

  2. More interaction To further combat online fatigue, having students take notes or participate in other active ways can keep them engaged.

  3. Labs – Having a physical location for students to come for extra support increases the likelihood of them succeeding in the course and beyond. Coming to a shared space where they can both take the course and see a teacher in-person who is an expert in the subject helps them pass and retain information.

  4. A hybrid approach – Research has shown that in-person instruction is the key to success with credit recovery. Further, allowing students flexibility in their schedule can take the stress off of the rigidity of an online course while fulfilling family and work commitments.

  5. Early warning systems – When a student is beginning to get off track, early warning systems alert the teacher so that they can identify and help the most at-risk students. If a student is absent, fails a test, or doesn’t turn in an assignment, they can get counseling or tutoring. Early warning systems also allow schools to see trends about whether students are failing a course in a particular area. 


Despite the pitfalls, credit recovery has too much potential to throw it to the wayside. The potential it has to help students recover from the damage of the pandemic is crucial to maintain. More research-based strategies can help students in creative ways to get back on track and take real-life skills into the world.