Indiana

Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

Why Indiana May Need To Tighten Rules That Govern Online Schools

“You won’t hear me saying this is a bad form of education. It’s how we’re pursuing it and the pace that we’re pursuing it that’s concerning.”
—Kevin Welner, National Education Policy Center

Students at Indiana’s online schools did not fare as well as their peers on a statewide standardized test, writes Kate Jacobson of the Indianapolis Star:

This past week, the state released scores on its ISTEP standardized test given to all students in Grades 3-8. All three Hoosier Academies schools had pass rates lower than the state average.

More troubling, the schools’ most recent letter grades — given by the state based on 2010-11 student performance — were a D and two Fs.

The state’s second-largest online school, Indiana Connections Academy in Indianapolis, with 1,800 students, appears to be doing better. It received a B last year.

However, that’s likely to go down. The recent release of ISTEP scores shows the school’s pass rate fell from 62.4 percent to 59.4 percent — well below the state average of 71.4 percent.

But operators of the schools told Jacobson they face challenges unique to online education, like a transient student population that isn’t the same year over year.

“You are really comparing apples to oranges,” Melissa Dewitt, academic director at Hoosier Academies, wrote in an email to Jacobson. She says more than half of the students tested are new to the school, so their scores wouldn’t be a part of last year’s data.

K12, the online school operator that runs Hoosier Academies, has a lackluster track record of student success. An investigation into the company by The New York Times last year found two out of three K12 schools failed to make the adequate yearly progress the No Child Left Behind act requires.

The Times also found turnover is high at these schools — 2,668 students withdrew from the K12-operated Agora Cyber Charter School in Pennsylvania during the 2009-10 academic year. But because interest in online education is at an all-time high, the school still finished the year up 170 students for a total enrollment of 4,890.

Now Indiana is upping its own online offerings — two new online schools opened last year, and three more have state approval to enroll students this coming year. Jacobson writes that critics say these schools already lack oversight and new legislation making it easier to start an online school with exacerbate the problem.

Adam Baker, a spokesperson for the Department of Education, told Jacobson Indiana didn’t look at other states’ performance numbers when it started advocating for more online schools. Nor did it draft accountability rules specific to online schools. But Baker says online schools remain accountable to the marketplace.

“If they start losing students, they start losing funding,” Baker told Jacobson, adding that parents always have the option of sending their kids to another school.

Jacobson’s colleague, Scott Elliott, called Baker’s argument “sensible” but points out on his Get On The Bus blog that the marketplace has failed to regulate schools elsewhere:

‘Buying’ a school is a complex and emotional decision. Sometimes parents choose schools primarily for non-academic factors, like how close it is to their home or child care or because the school was recommended by a trusted friend or relative. Choosing a school also means joining a community of people who become your friends and your children’s friends. Deciding to leave is more akin to breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend than it is to selling a stock.

It’s so difficult that parents often stick with floundering schools even when it is clear they are not succeeding academically. Those schools, therefore, stay open. The market fails to shut them down.

Elliott writes that in Ohio, one of the first states to embrace charter schools, it took advocacy within the school choice movement to tighten accountability laws.

Of course, there are students for whom online education works very well — Jacobson interviewed a high school freshman who dreams of competing as a Olympic figure skater someday. The girl’s demanding training schedule keeps her out of a regular classroom, but virtual learning has put her about a semester ahead of her peers.

One critic of the rapid expansion in online schools, Kevin Welner of the National Education Policy Center, conceded some students benefit from virtual learning. But he also told Jacobson that without more information from these schools, it’s hard to say what type of student is most likely to succeed in their virtual classrooms.

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