Guest Viewpoint

As Demand for Online Schools Grows, So Does Need for Accurate Evaluation

As Demand for Online Schools Grows, So Does Need for Accurate Evaluation 

Many students thrive in traditional brick-and-mortar schools, yet others feel limited by a system that simply does not fit their needs. Of the latter group, some students need to be challenged more, others need to catch up. However all students have unique talents and boundless potential. They need to be inspired by a quality education that works for them.

Thus, there is a growing demand for an alternative to traditional, brick-and-mortar schools. A recent national study by NEPC shows enrollment in full-time virtual schools and blended schools (online and face-to-face instruction) increasing at a rapid pace. According to the study, in the 2016-2017 school year, 17,000 more students enrolled in an online school than the previous year, and 80,000 more students enrolled in a blended learning program during the same period.

Families are opting for online and blended education because the models allow for greater customization to meet the needs of each student in ways that many traditional schools cannot. Learning systems used in online and blended schools also empower teachers to more effectively personalize learning — measure progress, adjust pace, and provide extra support when needed for every learner — which is a major advantage for both struggling students as well as high-achievers. This level of personalization can be a challenge to achieve in a traditional classroom.

Yet, while the report acknowledges the growing demand for virtual schools, it relies on inaccurate and unavailable data to evaluate the schools' effectiveness.

The report's claim that virtual schools are less diverse, and serve a lower number of low-income and special needs students are inconsistent with data from K12-partner schools (which make up 39 percent of online schools). At K12-partner schools:

  • 47 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced priced; NEPC claims the virtual school average is 35 percent.
  • 13 percent of students are special education students, which is equal to the national average.  According to NEPC, the virtual school average is 7.2 percent.
  • 15 percent of students are African-American (the national average is 16.5 percent).

While NEPC's claim that online schools are less diverse than traditional schools may have been true over a decade ago when these schools first began serving students, as more parents choose online public schools, the student demographics are shifting dramatically.  The "at-risk" student population has increased among most full-time, statewide online schools, including those affiliated with K12.

At K12-partner schools, more than half of parents of high school students and one-third of elementary school students' parents say their child has fallen behind and chose to enroll in an online school to help them get "caught up."

Within the largest K12 partner schools, new high school students were below proficient on prior state math tests at a rate of nine percent higher than returning students. And, the percent of students eligible for free and reduced priced lunch has increased by more than 30 percent in the last five years at K12-partner schools

The report rightly acknowledges that we lack clear assessments and reporting models for online schools, stating that "ways must be found, for example, to track the combined accomplishments of students who take advantage of multiple learning options in a variety of venues." This recommendation underscores the need for a different approach to student and school accountability within the online sector.

Current state accountability frameworks do not effectively capture the impact of full-time online schools given the timing of state assessments, enrollment patterns and the under-credited nature of many high school students.

That is why we agree with the NEPC's recommendations for state and federal policymakers to "promote efforts to design new outcome measures appropriate to the unique characteristics of full-time virtual schools."

We cannot begin to make sweeping judgements on the effectiveness of virtual schools based on wrong student demographic information, and without the tools to accurately assess the effectiveness of virtual schools.

But here is what we can say with certainty: Technology is transforming the way we deliver education by allowing educators to reach students where they are in their learning journey, give them every opportunity to succeed in their own way, and prepare them for their lives ahead.

The not-so-distant future of education lies in combining innovative thinking, technology and excellent teachers to create a personalized, boundary-free education that brings out the very best in every student.

As parents have increasing access to educational options, we can expect to see a continued rise in  online school enrollment and the greater adoption of online, personalized learning by all schools.  It's time to figure out how to measure the effectiveness of online education fairly and accurately.

About the Author

Kevin P. Chavous is national education reform leader and president of academics, policy and schools for K12 Inc., a technology-based education company and the nation's leading provider of proprietary curriculum and online school programs for students in pre-K through high school.