By: Molly Pileggi, Alyn Turner, Lindsey Liu, and Jason Fontana
November 2020


Nationally, credit recovery has been used as a strategy to encourage and enable students to re-take previously failed courses needed to graduate. The School District of Philadelphia (SDP) offers both in-person and online options for recovering failed or missing credits required for graduation. This study provides a snapshot of the district’s school-year credit recovery utilization—including eligibility, enrollment, and completion—using newly available data for high school students who entered the 2018–19 school year with a record of one or more failed courses.

We first examine credit recovery eligibility in traditional high schools at the end of the 2017–18 school year. SDP high school students are eligible for credit recovery if they failed a course that would have accrued a credit in a core subject area of math, English, science, or social studies. Then, we examine school-year credit recovery enrollment the following school year in 2018–19, among those eligible. Since the goal of credit recovery is for students to re-gain lost credits and get back on track to graduation, we then examine course completion and pass rates among students who enrolled in credit recovery in 2018–19. We also follow students through 2019–20 to examine subsequent course-taking among those who successfully recovered credits the previous year.

Key Findings

  • Credit recovery needs in the district are high: One-quarter of SDP high school students—and one in three students in Grade 10—were eligible to recover credit in a core course at the end of the 2017–18 school year.

  • Of the students eligible for credit recovery, over half were eligible for more than one course. Nearly a quarter were eligible to recover four or more courses (N=2,011), meaning they had effectively fallen an entire year behind.

  • During the 2018–19 school year, about half of eligible students attempted to recover at least one credit. Most students who enrolled in credit recovery enrolled in only one course, even if they were eligible for multiple courses.

  • Two in three credit recovery course attempts occurred in traditional format (65%), followed by web recovery (23%) and classroom recovery (12%). There were no significant differences in mode of recovery across course subject areas.

  • Students completed a large majority of courses attempted (nearly 80%). However, only half of the completed course attempts resulted in a passing grade.

  • Pass rates for completed course attempts were higher in traditional course formats (58%), relative to in-person (45%) and web-based (37%) recovery formats (e.g., Edgenuity).

  • There are large differences in credit recovery eligibility and pass rates across student subgroups, but not for enrollment in credit recovery, suggesting inequality in the supports for academic success rather than access to credit recovery options. We present these data to serve as a benchmark against which district efforts to improve equity can be measured.

  • Schools varied widely in level of need (rates of eligibility), access (rates of enrollment), and success (pass rates). School-specific rates are presented to demonstrate this variability, highlight bright spots where the district might examine opportunities to scale what is working and identify the schools with the greatest level of need.

  • Most (88%) non-graduating students who successfully recovered courses succeeded in subsequent courses in the same subject area.

Policy and Implications

  • In SDP’s traditional high school, many students need significantly more support to succeed in core courses. The high percentage of students in traditional schools that fail one or more core courses, coupled with low credit recovery enrollment and pass rates, suggest prevention would be more effective than remediation in its current form.

  • To guide a path forward, the district should consider systematically examining and scaling what is currently working in the district and providing more resources for evidence-based practices—such as academic support classes and tutoring—where many students are struggling (U.S. Department of Education 2017; 2018a).

  • Pass rates were very low (37%) for students using web-based recovery, e.g., Edgenuity. While this is not definitive evidence of lack of effectiveness, we recommend the district examine the research base for online credit recovery providers being utilized, and perhaps conduct an impact study of existing providers to assess what works.

  • We encourage the district to use this report to examine the bright spots in credit recovery utilization to see if and how successes might be scaled. Models of strong access to credit recovery in settings with high need, for example, might be investigated at Southern High and Strawberry Mansion, where over half of the students were eligible for credit recovery and credit recovery course enrollment was over 70%. Efforts for improving pass rates might be modeled by Robeson, Workshop School, and Motivation High School, where between 75%–100% of students who enrolled in credit recovery successfully recovered credits.

  • This study does not address what credit recovery modes are more effective for getting students on track or whether credit recovery is an effective strategy for improving graduation rates in the district. Rather, the descriptive data presented here can be used to generate more specific research questions about which credit recovery options work best and for whom, and what supports are needed to ensure equity in course completion and pass rates for all students and all schools across the district.