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An in-depth look by I-News - a Colorado-based nonprofit investigative news collaborative, Education News Colorado, and KUNC at the state’s online K-12 schools. Topics include: online K-12 school performance, state- and district-level oversight, and for-profit Education Management Organizations, such as K12 Inc.

Online Education: The Expanding Achievement Gap

Joe Mahoney

The I-News Network, a Colorado-based in-depth news consortium, and one of its partners, the nonprofit Education News Colorado, investigated what’s really happening with thousands of Colorado K-12 students who try an online school each year. This is part 2, part 1 can be found here.

Students attending Colorado’s full-time online education programs have typically lagged their peers on virtually every academic indicator, from state test scores to student growth measures to high school graduation rates.

But an independent analysis of previously unreleased online school data by the I-News Network and Education News Colorado reveals key new findings and an achievement gap that alarmed education officials:

  • Online students are losing ground. Students who transfer to online programs from brick-and-mortar schools posted lower scores on annual state reading exams after entering their virtual classrooms.
  • Academic performance declined after students enrolled in online programs.  Students who stayed in online programs long enough to take two years’ worth of state reading exams actually saw their test results decline over time.
  • Wide gaps persist. Double-digit gaps in achievement on state exams between online students and their peers in traditional schools persist in nearly every grade and subject – and they’re widest among more affluent students.

A top state education official called the findings “very concerning. ”
“We’ve got to ask some questions here and we’ve got to see what’s going on,” said Diana Sirko, deputy commissioner of learning and results for the Colorado Department of Education.

Sirko said the CDE will launch a “comprehensive review” of online standards and accountability under the guidance of a newly hired choice and innovation chief, Amy Anderson, who began work Aug. 29.

Poor achievement has done little to stem the popularity of virtual programs, with online enrollment growing last year at a pace seven times faster than that of traditional schools. Online schools in Colorado are now a $100 million a year industry.

“We know online in general does not do as well as traditional schools,” said Randy DeHoff, a former State Board of Education member who now works for GOAL Academy, one of the state’s newest and largest online programs. “That’s because so many are coming in so far behind. Online tends to be kind of their last option. ”

DeHoff’s program targets, at least in part, students who have struggled in conventional classrooms. In 2009-10, nearly 400 GOAL students identified as homeless.

The analysis of state data shows, however, that most online school students do not appear to be at-risk students. Only about 120 students of the more than 10,000 entering online programs last year were identified as previous dropouts returning to school, and only 290 entered online schools after spending the prior year in an alternative school for troubled youth.

In addition, the analysis looked at the 2,400 online students who had taken a state standardized reading test in a brick-and-mortar school the year before. More than half had scored proficient or better.

Shifting demographics of online programs

Online programs as a group have become more diverse as the population has grown. However, they still serve fewer poor and minority students than the state as a whole.

Online student scores on statewide achievement tests are consistently 14 to 26 percentage points below state averages for reading, writing and math over the past four years. The gap in reading and writing has remained about the same between 2008 and 2011, and the gap in math has risen several percentage points.

“I think the achievement gap that your data shows is very alarming,” said State Board of Education member Elaine Gantz Berman.

Colorado Virtual Academy, the state’s largest online program with more than 5,000 students, has seen its poverty rate double to 19 percent and its minority population rise to 22 percent in the past five years.

Those figures are still below state averages – as are COVA’s test results.

A mom who represents one segment of virtual families, traditional homeschoolers, said she simply isn’t interested in test scores.

“You’ll find that most homeschoolers don’t care about tests,” said Liese Carberry, who has enrolled her three children in COVA and Kaplan online programs. “That's because we have seen learning happen for the sake of learning, not for the sake of a few points on a graph. ”

Timothy Booker, who chairs the charter school board overseeing COVA, said families who enrolled prior to the recent growth explosion in online tended to have at least one involved parent and homeschooling experience.

“That has changed over the years,” he said. “We’ve kind of been discovered by kids who … we might be the school of last resort, they’ve tried brick-and-mortar and they’re not getting anywhere. ”

Between 2004 and 2011, COVA’s reading scores dropped six percentage points and math results flatlined.  Academic growth indicators put student progress at 29 in math and 36 in reading, far below the state average of 50.

During those years, a state law requiring online students to have previously attended a brick-and-mortar school was repealed and enrollment in COVA – which targets homeschoolers – more than doubled.

Booker described board members as “very concerned” about the school’s progress and said they discussed ending their contract with K12 Inc., the Virginia-based online provider that operates virtual schools in 27 states. In 2009-10, K12 Inc. received $22 million in public funding to operate COVA.

But Booker said a one-on-one conversation with the head of K12 Inc. led to a sharper focus on professional development for COVA teachers, emphasizing the need for more student interaction.

 “We’re not happy at all,” he said of overall academic results, but after discussions with his school’s corporate leader: “We’re starting to be hopeful. ”

Online students declining performance over time

The I-News and EdNews analysis also looked at the test scores of students in online schools over time, finding performance declined.

For example, 2,729 online school students took state reading tests in both 2009 and 2010. Sixty percent were proficient in 2009. But that fell to 54 percent the next year.

And students making the switch from traditional public schools to online also saw their scores drop. Some 2,414 students took the reading exams in traditional schools in 2009, then in an online program the next year. Their proficiency rate declined from 58 percent to 51 percent.

Online schools also had among the highest dropout rates and lowest graduation rates in the state over the past two years. In 2010, fewer than one in four online school seniors graduated compared to nearly three of every four high school seniors statewide.

The dropout rate in the top 10 largest online programs last year was 12 percent – quadruple the state average of 3 percent. Colorado’s online schools produced three times more dropouts than graduates. That’s the opposite of the state average, where there are three graduates for every one dropout.

Other studies of online students have found similarly poor results.

The state’s annual online school report released in June found that “results indicate achievement of online students consistently lags behind those of non-online students, even after controlling for grade levels and various student characteristics,” such as poverty, English language ability and special education status.

The I-News and EdNews analysis pulled apart the data to see how online schools fare with students by income level. The finding: Students eligible for federal lunch assistance in online programs perform worse than low-income students in traditional schools on state reading, writing and math exams.

But the gaps between online students who are not low-income and their peers statewide are much larger, particularly in math.  The math gap between poor students in online versus brick-and-mortar schools was 20 points in 2010 – but it was 37 points that year among more affluent students.

Slowing growth leads to higher achievement  

One of Colorado’s oldest online programs, Branson Online School, is also its highest-performing. But to get there, the school had to cut back.

In 2005, the Branson school district on Colorado’s southeastern border with New Mexico ran the state’s third-largest online school, enrolling more than 1,000 students. By 2010, the school had dropped back to sixth in size, enrolling 427 students.

Branson assistant superintendent Judith Stokes, who oversees the online school, said the growth and lagging scores - combined with a critical 2006 state audit of online programs - prompted the ranching community’s school board to slow down.

“We had grown very, very rapidly at one time, before the audit, and at that point, we pulled back,” she said.

Stokes said growth slowed when the school focused on ensuring families understood the online program before enrolling because, “If you’re looking for easy, it’s not us. ”

In spring 2011, Branson online students beat the statewide average in proficiency in reading and were six percentage points short in math.

DeHoff, the former State Board of Education member, said online schools need to do more to show academic progress. He believes they’re trying.

“We’re figuring out that most kids need more than just a course over the computer,” he said. “So online programs are doing much more in the way of field trips and social gatherings … more movement, like GOAL has, of teachers having face-to-face contact – not just virtually but in the same location.

“You really do need both. ”

Sirko said the state’s comprehensive review will attempt to look at what’s behind the numbers.

“I think the market-driven environment in having choices and options for kids is a very good thing,” she said. “But I think this is one of those unintended consequences, if we’re not careful, where kids become a victim of the choice rather than a beneficiary of it. “


Burt Hubbard, I-News Network and Nancy Mitchell, Education News Colorado both contributed to this report. This story is part 2 of 3 in a special investigative report.

I-News is the public service journalism arm of Rocky Mountain PBS and works in collaboration with news media throughout Colorado.
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