Enrollment and Achievement in Ohio’s Virtual Charter Schools

August 02, 2016

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Fordham’s latest study, conducted by learning technology researcher June Ahn from NYU, dives into one of the most promising—and contentious—issues in education today: virtual schools. What type of students choose them? Which online courses do students take? Do virtual schools lead to improved outcomes for kids?

With over thirty-five thousand students enrolled in its fully online charter schools (“e-schools”), Ohio boasts one of the country’s largest populations of full-time virtual students. The sector has also grown tremendously, with a 60 percent increase in enrollment over the past four years—more than any other type of public school. Using four years of comprehensive student-level data to examine Ohio’s e-schools, the study finds: 

  • E-school students are mostly similar in race and ethnicity to students in brick-and-mortar district schools. But e-school students are lower-achieving (and more likely to have repeated the prior grade), more likely to participate in the federal free and reduced-price lunch program, and less likely to participate in gifted education.
  • Students taking online math courses are more likely to enroll in basic classes relative to students taking face-to-face courses. Almost no students take advanced math courses (like AP Statistics, Calculus, or Algebra II) online, especially compared to students who take face-to-face classes.
  • Across all grades and subjects, students who attend e-schools perform worse on state tests than otherwise-similar students who attend brick-and-mortar district schools, even accounting for prior achievement. In contrast, students in grades 4–8 who attend brick-and-mortar charter schools perform slightly better than their district school counterparts in both reading and math. Results are mixed but modest for students in grade ten.
  • Findings also suggest that e-schools drag down the performance of the entire charter sector.

Online schools offer an efficient way to diversify—and even democratize—education in a connected world. Yet they have received negative, but well-deserved, attention concerning their poor academic performance, attrition rates, and ill capacity to educate the types of students who enroll in them. This is especially true in Ohio, where virtual schools have failed (as yet) to realize their potential.

Using a slightly different analytical approach than CREDO’s Online Charter School Study (2015), Dr. Ahn’s results corroborate the disappointing findings on Ohio’s online schools. Bold changes in policy and practice are needed to ensure that these schools better serve their students. For advocates of online learning and educational choice, the work has just begun.

Can Policymakers Fix What Ails Online Charter Schools?

By Dara Zeehandelaar and Michael J. Petrilli

08/08/2016

A major development of recent years has been the explosive growth of online learning in K–12 education. Sometimes it takes the form of “blended learning,” with students receiving a mix of online and face-to-face instruction. Students may also learn via web-based resources like the Khan Academy, or by enrolling in distance-learning “independent study” courses. In addition, an increasing number of pupils are taking the plunge into fully online schools: In 2015, an estimated 275,000 students enrolled in full-time virtual charter schools across twenty-five states.

The Internet has obviously opened a new frontier of instructional possibilities. Much less certain is whether such opportunities are actually improving achievement, especially for the types of students who enroll in virtual schools. In Enrollment and Achievement in Ohio’s Virtual Charter Schools, we at Fordham examined this issue using data from our home state of Ohio, where online charter schools (“e-schools”) are a rapidly growing segment of K–12 education. Today they enroll more than thirty-five thousand students, one of the country’s largest populations of full-time online students. Ohio e-school enrollment has grown 60 percent over the last four years, a rate greater than any other type of public school. But even since they launched, e-schools have received negative press for their poor academic performance, high attrition rates, and questionable capacity to educate the types of students who choose them. It’s clearly a sector that needs attention.

Our study focuses on the demographics, course-taking patterns, and academic results of pupils attending Ohio’s e-schools. It was authored by Dr. June Ahn, an associate professor at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. He’s an expert in how technology can enhance how education is delivered and how students learn.

Using student-level data from 2009–10 through 2012–13, Dr. Ahn reports that e-schools serve a unique population. Compared to students in brick-and-mortar district schools, e-school students are initially lower-achieving (and more likely to have repeated the prior grade), more likely to participate in the federal free and reduced-price lunch program, and less likely to participate in gifted education. (Brick-and-mortar charters attract even lower-performing students.)

The analysis also finds that, controlling for demographics and prior achievement, e-school students perform worse than students who attend brick-and-mortar district schools. Put another way, on average, Ohio’s e-school students start the school year academically behind and lose even more ground (relative to their peers) during the year. That finding corroborates the disappointing results from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) 2015 analysis of virtual charter schools nationwide, which used a slightly different analytical approach.

Importantly, this study considers e-school students separately from those in other charters. It finds that brick-and-mortar charter students in grades 4–8 outperform their peers in district schools in both reading and math. In high school, brick-and-mortar charter students perform better in science, no better or worse in math, and slightly worse in reading and writing compared to students in district schools. This confirms what some Ohioans have long suspected: E-schools weigh down the overall impact of the Buckeye State’s charter sector. Separate out the e-school results and Ohio’s brick-and-mortar charters look a lot better than when the entire sector is treated as a whole.

The consistent, negative findings for e-school students are troubling, to say the least. One obvious remedy is to pull the plug—literally and figuratively—but we think that would be a mistake. Surely it’s possible, especially as technology and online pedagogy improve, to create virtual schools that serve students well. The challenge now is to boost outcomes for online learners, not to eliminate the online option. We therefore offer three recommendations for policy makers and advocates in states that, like Ohio, are wrestling to turn the rapid development of online schools into a net plus for their pupils.

First, policy makers should adopt performance-based funding for e-schools. When students complete courses successfully and demonstrate that they have mastered the expected competencies, e-schools would get paid. This creates incentives for e-schools to focus on what matters most—academic progress—while tempering their appetite for enrollment growth and the dollars tied to it. It would also encourage them to recruit students likely to succeed in an online environment—a form of “cream-skimming” that is not only defensible but, in this case, preferable. At the very least, proficiency-based funding is one way for e-schools to demonstrate that they are successfully delivering the promised instruction to students. That should be appealing to them given the difficulty in defining, tracking, and reporting “attendance” and “class time” at an online school.

Second, policy makers should seek ways to improve the fit between students and e-schools. Based on the demographics we report, it seems that students selecting Ohio’s e-schools may be those least likely to succeed in a school format that requires independent learning, self-motivation, and self-regulation. Lawmakers could explore rules that exempt e-schools from policies requiring all charters, virtual ones included, to accept every student who applies and instead allow e-schools to operate more like magnet schools with admissions procedures and priorities. E-schools would be able to admit students best situated to take advantage of the unique elements of virtual schooling: flexible hours and pacing, a safe and familiar location for learning, a chance for individuals with social or behavioral problems to focus on academics, greater engagement from students who are able to choose electives based on their own interests, and the chance to develop high-level virtual communication skills. E-schools should also consider targeting certain students through advertising and outreach, especially if they can’t be selective. At the very least, states with fully online schools should adopt a policy like the one in Ohio, which requires such schools to offer an orientation course—the perfect occasion to set high expectations for students as they enter and let them know what would help them thrive in an online learning environment (e.g., a quiet place to study, a dedicated amount of time to devote to academics).

Third, policy makers should support online course choice (also called “course access”), so that students interested in web-based learning can avail themselves of online options without enrolling full-time. Ohio currently confronts students with a daunting decision: either transfer to a full-time e-school or stay in their traditional school and potentially be denied the chance to take tuition-free, credit-bearing virtual courses aligned to state standards. Instead of forcing an all-or-nothing choice, policy makers should ensure that a menu of course options is available to students, including courses delivered online. To safeguard quality and public dollars, policy makers should also create oversight to vet online options (and veto shoddy or questionable ones). Financing arrangements may need to change, too, perhaps in ways that more directly link funding to actual course providers. If it were done right, however, course choice would not only open more possibilities for students, but also ratchet up the competition that online schools face—and perhaps compel them to improve the quality of their own services.

Innovation is usually an iterative process. Many of us remember the earliest personal computers—splendid products for playing Oregon Trail, but now artifacts of the past. Fortunately, innovators and engineers kept pushing the envelope for faster, nimbler, smarter devices. Today, we are blessed as customers with easy-to-use laptops, tablets, and more. But proximity to technology, no matter how advanced, isn’t enough. E-schools and their kin should facilitate understanding of how best to utilize online curricula and non-traditional learning environments, especially for underserved learners. From this evidence base, providers should then be held to high standards of practice. Though the age of online learning has dawned, there is much room for improvement in online schooling—and nowhere more than in Ohio. For advocates of online learning, and educational choice, the work has just begun.

—Dara Zeehandelaar and Mike Petrilli

This post originally appeared on Flypaper

Charter Groups Want More Regulations for Virtual Charter Schools

Posted

By David Safier

on at 4:00 PM

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  • Courtesy of PhotoSpin

Now this is an interesting development. Some prominent charter school organizations have published a report advocating stricter regulations to improve the performance of virtual charter schools, also known as on-line schools. This isn’t an entirely new development. Charter school organizations have been trying to weed out poorly performing schools from the charter ranks, and this is their latest effort. More at the end of the post about the positives and negatives of this push.

Three organizations, National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, National Association of Charter School Organizers and 50CAN, joined together to publish A Call to Action To Improve the Quality of Full-Time Virtual Charter Public Schools. The organizations support virtual charters, but they’ve read the reports about how poorly students at those schools perform compared to students at other public schools and believe the schools should be more carefully regulated.

The facts about the virtual schools in the report look to me to be accurate. A vital bit of information is that 70 percent of the schools are run by for-profit organizations, directly or indirectly, which means the profit motive is going to trump education whenever the two are in conflict. Some other facts: there are 135 full-time virtual schools in the country; 79 percent of their students are in virtual schools with more than a thousand students; virtual school serve more students in poverty and fewer English language learners than traditional public schools.

The report’s recommendations are specific and, if implemented, could doom one of the biggest players, K-12 Inc., a publicly traded corporation (Arizona Virtual Academy, or AZVA, in one of its schools) whose many sins I’ve written about over the years and whose failings are being subjected to increasing scrutiny. The proposal is that enrollment be limited to hundreds, not thousands of students, and if the schools want to grow, they need to meet performance goals. That would be a stake in the heart of K12 Inc. whose profits are based on continual growth and whose stockholders are growing increasingly skittish (its stock is currently trading at about 11, down from a 2011 high of 36). AZVA has over 4,000 students. Another branch, Ohio Virtual Academy, has over 10,000 students. The corporation would crumble if it had to cut its schools’ student populations dramatically.

The report also recommends that virtual schools be funded based on their real costs, another potentialstake in the heart of the for-profit model. Right now, most virtual schools get close to the same per-student state funding as brick-and-mortar schools even though they don’t have physical buildings to pay for and maintain, and their teachers often have twice the student load of teachers in other charters and school districts (A 50-to-1 student-teacher ratio is the standard at K12 Inc. schools). The report estimates that per student costs at virtual schools are 60 percent of the costs at brick-and-mortar schools. Take away their inflated public funding—remember, taxpayers pay for charter schools, just like we pay for school districts—and they lose their profit margins.

It’s good to see charter school organizations actively pursuing some of the bad actors in their midst, and I agree with almost everything I read in this report. However, there’s a bit of a caveat I need to add. When they go after poorly performing charters, their targets are almost always schools with students from low income families. It’s true, some of those schools are doing a lousy job, just like some district schools do a bad job with their low income students, but some charters serving those students do terrific work, even though their test scores are at the low end of the spectrum because of socioeconomic factors beyond the schools’ control. If charter organizations work together with state regulators to carve out the genuinely bad schools, that’s a good thing. However, their motives may not be that pure. Every time a charter with low test scores is closed, regardless of the reason, the average test scores for the remaining charter schools rise. Closing charters serving low income students for any reason, good or bad, can give the charter PR people the kind of undeserved bragging rights they love. “Look at our scores! We’re more successful than school districts,” they can say, even though their higher scores may be a result of serving a different population. The poster child for this type of self congratulation is the BASIS chain which has a variety of ways to screen out academically undesirable students, then brags about its students’ academic achievement. The “education reform”/privatization folks would love to be able to say the same kind of thing about charters as a whole, and the easiest way to do that is to close schools serving low income students.

Ohio’s charter schools ridiculed at national conference, even by national charter supporters

Children stands in line for a turn on a bounce house/obstacle course during the new Pearl Academy open house as a large banner encourages passers-by to sign up for classes Friday, June 21, 2013 in Lakewood. This is at the former Saints Cyril and Methodius school building. The open house was being hosted by White Hat Management, a company that operates lots of charter schools in Ohio.

Plain Dealer photography staff

By

The Plain Dealer
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on March 02, 2015 at 12:23 PM, updated

DENVER, Colorado – Ohio, the charter school world is making fun of you.

Ohio’s $1 Billion charter school system was the butt of jokes at a conference for reporters on school choice in Denver late last week, as well as the target of sharp criticism of charter school failures across the state.

The shots came from expected critics like teachers unions, but also from pro-charter voices, as the state considers ways to improve how it handles charters.

Ohio has about 123,000  kids attending nearly 400 charter schools – public schools that receive state tax money, but which are privately run.

One after another, panelists at the conference organized by the national Education Writers Association targeted Ohio’s poor charter school performance statewide, Ohio’s for-profit charter operators and how many organizations we hand over charter oversight keys to as the sponsors, or authorizers, of schools.

“Be very glad that you have Nevada, so you are not the worst,” Stanford University researcher Margaret “Macke” Raymond said of Ohio. 

Places like Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., she told reporters from across the country, have high standards for charter school performance.

“Then you have folks at the low end, of which Ohio is a strong case,” said Raymond, who released a report on Ohio’s charter performance in December.

Stanford’s Center for Research of Educational Outcomes (CREDO), found that students learn less in Ohio’s charter schools than in traditional districts – the equivalent of 36 days of learning in math and 14 days in reading.

The National Education Association’s David Welker, a member of NEA’s charter policy team, said Ohio’s system has been taken over by “grifters” and “cheats” – the for-profit companies that run many Ohio schools.

He was suspect about Ohio’s attempts to rein them in, saying, “the horse has left the barn.”

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a major national organization supporting the charter school movement, didn’t disagree.

“There are some operators who are exploiting things,” said Todd Ziebarth, a vice president of the Alliance.

He specifically named K12 Inc. and White Hat Management as major offenders. K12 is the nation’s largest provider of online charter schools and runs Ohio Virtual Academy, while White Hat is an Akron-based operator of many low-scoring charter schools that has regularly been a large donor to Republicans in Ohio. 

As Ziebarth started naming White Hat and K12, panelist Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute jumped in to add The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) to the list. That online school is run by William Lager, another major donor to Ohio Republicans.

Just last month the Akron Beacon-Journal reported that former Ohio House Speaker William Batchelder formed a lobbying company that will have former House staffers lobby for ECOT.

“Mike could probably go down a list of Ohio operators,” Ziebarth said.

Petrilli nodded and added: “Ohio needs a top-to-bottom overhaul of its charter school sector.”

Fordham is both a charter supporter and critic. It sponsors, or authorizes, some charter in Ohio and promotes school choice efforts, while also wanting better quality. Fordham helped sponsor the CREDO study in Ohio, as well as another study suggesting ways to reform charter laws in Ohio.

Alex Medler of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers added his own criticisms of Ohio’s system, but far more subtle ones.

But Medler had already made his views on Ohio’s charter system clear a year ago, when he derided Ohio’s charter school free-for-all as “the Wild, Wild West” of charters.

Both Gov. John Kasich and Republicans in the Ohio House have made separate proposals to change the oversight and management of charter schools. A third proposal is coming soon from the Ohio Senate and State Auditor Dave Yost is expected to propose some additional changes this week.

Some of the suggested that Fordham seeks have been incorporated into House Bill 2 or Kasich’s charter reform plan.

While both proposals so far are receiving praise for taking on some important issues, some want them to go further.

For another account of the criticism at the conference in Denver, see this report from the Akron Beacon-Journal.

To follow education news from Cleveland and affecting all of Ohio, follow this reporter on Facebook as @PatrickODonnellReporter

Ohio ignores online school F’s as it evaluates charter school overseers

Online schools like Ohio Virtual Academy, ECOT and OHDELA with poor state report card grades won’t be counted in this year’s reviews of charter school oversight agencies.

(LANCE MURPHEY)

By

The Plain Dealer
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on June 14, 2015 at 8:00 AM, updated

COLUMBUS, Ohio — It turns out that Ohio’s grand plan to stop the national ridicule of its charter school system is giving overseers of many of the lowest-performing schools a pass from taking heat for some of their worst problems.

Gov. John Kasich and both houses of the state legislature are banking on a roundabout plan to improve a $1 billion charter school industry that, on average, fails to teach kids across the state as much as the traditional schools right in their own neighborhoods.

But The Plain Dealer has learned that this plan of making charters better by rating their oversight agencies, known as sponsors or authorizers, is pulling its punches and letting sponsors off the hook for years of not holding some schools to high standards.

The state this year has slammed two sponsors/authorizers with “ineffective” ratings so far. But it has given three others the top rating of “exemplary” by overlooking significant drawbacks for two of them and mixed results for the third.

The state’s not penalizing sponsors, we found, for poor graduation rates at dropout recovery schools, portfolios of charter schools that have more bad grades than good ones and, most surprising, failing grades for online schools. 

Online school F grades aren’t counted

We found that the state isn’t counting the performance of online charter schools — one of the most-controversial and lowest-performing charter sectors —  in the calculations in this first year of ratings.

That means that many F-rated charter schools that serve thousands of students won’t be included when their oversight agencies are rated this year.

The Department of Education says recent drops in grades for online schools are “inexplicable” and that it has to develop a way to grade these “unique” schools. 

The omission caught some of the state’s major charter supporters by surprise. The Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools, which says that a strong ratings plan is key to improving charters, was certain until recently that online schools would be a factor in the ratings.

Consider the Ohio Council of Community Schools, which collects about $1.5 million in sponsor fees a year from the more than 14,000 students attending Ohio Virtual Academy and OHDELA, the online school run by White Hat Management.

The F grades that the state gave those schools last year for failing to teach kids enough material over the school year didn’t count against the council when it was rated early this year. The result? A perfect academic rating of 100 percent and an overall rating of “exemplary,” the highest available.

This year’s ranking also leaves out dropout recovery schools, another controversial group of 90 charter schools, because separate report cards for those schools aren’t complete.

Mostly “ineffective,” but still “exemplary”

Even without the online schools, the rating system doesn’t set a high standard for the schools a sponsor oversees. Instead of setting a high bar and challenging staff and overseers to meet it, The Plain Dealer’s review shows that the Department of Education set a low standard that’s met much more easily.

In fact, a sponsor can oversee more students in schools that are “ineffective” than are “effective” and still be lauded as “exemplary” this year and next year. Sponsors only have to have 41 percent of students in “effective” schools to meet the state’s goal this year.

Those standards will increase over time, with an eventual goal of 66 percent of a sponsor’s students in “effective” schools. But even by the 2016-17 school year, the state will only require 55 percent.

So the Buckeye Community Hope Foundation, which sponsors 52 schools, wasn’t hammered in its rating this year despite having only 38 percent of students in “effective” schools. 

Since 38 percent is so close to the 41 percent standard, the foundation only lost a few points in its rating and snagged an “exemplary” mark.

Department of Education spokesman John Charlton said online and dropout recovery schools will be included in ratings next year, and that the target for having effective schools will increase over time.

“Keep in mind this is the first year of the evaluation process, and we expect to make improvements to the system,” Charlton said.

Ratings have high stakes

Why do these ratings matter? Because supporters of the charter school concept have portrayed them as a way to put pressure on sponsors to make Ohio’s charter schools something to be proud of, not viewed as a drag on the state’s education system.

Kasich and the legislature are considering tying some incentives and sanctions to the ratings in bills that could be passed by the end of this month. An easy path to the top rating of “exemplary” won’t separate strong oversight from mediocre when cash and other benefits are handed out.

For example, Kasich proposed early this year setting aside $25 million in the state budget for charter schools to spend on new school buildings, but he wants the money to be available to schools with “exemplary” sponsors. His plan passed in the Ohio House,

The Senate may change that plan in the next few days, making the money  available only to highly rated schools, not sponsors.

Kasich and the House have proposed letting schools run by exemplary sponsors seek tax levies from voters, if the local school district agrees. That’s allowed only in Cleveland now.

And Kasich and the House have proposed allowing schools run by exemplary sponsors to offer kindergarten and collect state tax dollars for each kindergarten student.

As a penalty, Kasich and the House have proposed adding a lower rating of “poor” in the ranking, giving these sponsors one year to improve or be shut down.

And though the standards will increase over time, the ratings completed this year will last for three years. Sponsors won’t face any effects from dropout schools, online schools or needing to have more “effective” schools until 2018.

They won’t be rated under higher standards until after the state passes a new two-year budget in 2017 that could offer even more perks and penalties.

Where do these ratings come from?

The state legislature voted to start rating sponsors in 2012 and set up a basic structure in House Bill 555.

Charter school supporters nationally look at sponsor/authorizers as fundamental to making charter schools run well. These agencies are usually local school districts that create one or two charter schools in their cities, but can be statewide charter boards, county Educational Service Centers or, in a national rarity, other nonprofit organizations.

As we reported last year, observers in other states view Ohio as the “wild, wild west” of charter operations because it has so many sponsors and so few rules governing them. The new evaluation system in Ohio was viewed as a way to compel improvement in sponsor quality and, in turn, make schools better.

As ordered in HB 555, academic performance makes up just a third of a sponsor’s rating. The other two components are compliance with all state and federal codes governing sponsors and how well they meet industry standards.

As a result, one third of each sponsor/authorizer rating is based on the quality practices suggested by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

How the academic portion would be handled was left up to the Department of Education.

Not counting online schools is a surprise

The state agency decided to drop online schools that serve 40,000 students across the state from the evaluations. In letters to sponsor/authorizers announcing the results of their reviews, David Hansen, executive director of the department’s  Office of Quality School Choice, said that the 2013-14 online school test results will simply be the “base year” to evaluate future performance.

“I wasn’t aware that they (online schools) were not counted in the evaluation,” said Lenny Schafer, executive director of the Ohio Council of Community Schools.

Chad Aldis, vice president of Ohio policy and advocacy of the Fordham Institute, the other charter sponsor that has already received an exemplary rating, said he was unaware of that too. Even though Fordham has been rated, it does have the academic scoring rubric used by the state.

And Darlene Chambers, president and CEO of the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said Thursday that she was sure online schools are being counted. She has told people for months, often in formal PowerPoint presentations, that Performance Index scores the state calculates for all of a sponsor’s schools were part of the evaluation.

Performance Index combines test scores across multiple grades and subjects and is the state’s main measure of how much kids know. The sponsor PI scores include online schools.

“E-school outcomes are not being ignored,” Chambers said. “It is captured in that now.”

But when told that the state created a new academic measure that excludes online schools, Chambers said: “If it exists, I’ve not seen it. This is the first time I’ve heard of it.”

Charlton said the Department of Education decided to use the value-added ratings of schools — a measure of student academic progress — instead of the Performance Index in the evaluations.

And the department also chose to set aside value-added results for e-schools, he said, because of concerns over how those scores are calculated.

Concern over scores for online schools

Shafer said a change for the 2011-12 school year about which first-year students in online schools were counted in state report card results caused a dramatic lowering of scores for online schools. Data provided by him shows online schools mostly met or exceeded value-added targets for student growth before the change, but most failed to meet them after the switch.

Charlton said the Department of Education dropped the online schools because of this concern.

“Because the change in the system for measuring performance has had a significant and inexplicable impact on the e-school data, the department decided to take a year to look at those results, identify what caused the significant changes and address those causes by creating a more accurate performance evaluation system,” he said.

It is unclear if there is a calculation “glitch,” as Schafer calls it, or if online schools saw lower grades because report cards started counting under-served kids that should have been counted all along.

Dropout recovery ratings are incomplete

Unlike the online schools, the state planned for a few years to exclude dropout recovery schools — charter schools that serve kids returning to school or at risk of leaving. The legislature decided in 2012 to keep them out because separate report cards for these schools would not be finished in time.

These 90 schools don’t appear on regular state report cards because they serve a different type of student and the state has different expectations for them.

Charlton said these schools will become part of sponsor evaluations next year, once measures of student academic growth there kick in.

“There will be a learning gains measure available starting next year for dropout recovery,” Charlton said. “DOPR (Drop Out Prevention and Recovery) schools are being graded as soon as the grading system is in place.”

For now, sponsors like the Ohio Council of Community Schools face no consequences for overseeing schools like the Life Skills Center of Toledo, that meets no graduation standards. The school graduates only 2.2 percent of students on time.

A tough new growth standard

Instead of using Performance Index as most expected, the Department of Education is using the value-added calculation of how much learning kids accomplish over a school year.

The Department of Education has not published its academic rating criteria. Repeated requests to a link for it went unanswered.

But Charlton said here’s what the department used in the sponsor evaluations:

Charter schools with an A or B grade in value-added — scores that are above average — are counted as “effective” schools.

Schools with a C in value-added — the average grade meant to show that a school met learning expectations — need to have an A, B, or C in Performance Index to be considered “effective.”

If you have a D or F in value-added — grades that reflect kids making less than a year’s progress over a school year — your school is ineffective, regardless of performance score.

That’s a strong departure from the state’s traditional focus on Performance Index, a measure of academic achievement.

We have asked the department to explain why it made this choice, but have not heard back.

To evaluate a sponsor/authorizer of multiple schools, the state counts the number of students in schools that meet the “effective” criteria vs. those in schools that are “ineffective.”

It then looks at the ratio of “effective” school “seats” to “ineffective” ones.

More “ineffective” than “effective”

This first year, the state is asking sponsors’ to have a 0.7 to 1 ratio of effective to ineffective seats — less than one effective for every ineffective one — in their portfolios. As a percentage basis, that’s the 41 percent effective mentioned earlier.

If a sponsor meets that target, it receives all 100 points for academic performance in its evaluation.

That means that the Fordham Institute that had an almost equal number of ineffective seats to effective ones at the 10 schools it sponsors, met the state’s bar by 141 percent and earned a perfect academic score.

That came despite overseeing schools with value-added F grades, like Sciotoville Community School in Portsmouth and Cleveland’s Village Prep, normally a well-regarded school for student growth that had abysmal results last year.

And the low bar gave Buckeye Community Hope Foundation only a small penalty for having a ratio of 0.6 effective seats to each effective one.

The target percentages are supposed to rise each year, Charlton said.

Here are the expected ratios:

2013-14: 0.7 to 1.

2014-15: 0.85 to 1.

2015-16: 1.05 to 1.

2016-17: 1.25 to 1.

Eventual goal: 2 to 1.

Though sponsors have known that their academic performance would be evaluated since 2012, Charlton said the state agency is phasing in the standards because of the contracts that sponsors have with individual schools.

Those contracts, which can last five years, spell out academic goals. Sponsors can’t change the expectations midway through, Charlton said.

To follow education news from Cleveland and affecting all of Ohio, follow this reporter on Facebook as @PatrickODonnellReporter

Charter Groups Call Out Virtual Schools

In August 2014, there were 135 full-time virtual charter schools operating in 23 states and the District of Columbia.

A coalition of charter school advocates banded together Thursday to take a shot at some of their own – virtual charter schools – and urged state policymakers to tighten regulations on their lesser-known school-choice stepsisters, which have come under fire for poor student performance.

“When national groups that advocate for and champion charter schools question the impact of virtual charter schools on student achievement, policymakers should take note,” said Chad Aldis, vice president for Ohio policy and advocacy with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative-leaning education policy organization.

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Propping Up the School-to-Prison Pipeline

The groups – the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers – published a set of sweeping recommendations for how states should overhaul their virtual charter schools, complete with calls for shuttering the poorest performers.

Among the many detailed recommendations, the groups called on states to set minimum academic performance standards for virtual charter schools whose charters are in the process of being renewed, and for enforcement mechanisms to ensure that all charter schools, including full-time virtual charter schools, meet those minimums.

In addition, the groups recommended that states create a method to hold charter authorizers accountable for results, and said an entity should be tasked with regularly monitoring those authorizers’ performance. States should also require charter authorizers to show via annual audits that they are using all of their oversight money for oversight functions.

“These provisions are tailored to the unique problems that have emerged among too many full-time virtual charter schools, which require states to enact significant policy changes,” said Todd Ziebarth, senior vice president for state advocacy and support at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

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Best High Schools: Top Charter Schools]

Greg Richmond, president and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, urged those bodies also to work within existing state policy frameworks to close chronically low-performing virtual charter schools.

“Authorizers have a legal and a moral responsibility to close chronically low-performing charter schools of any kind, including full-time virtual charter schools,” he said. “In many cases, this would not require a change to state law.”

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As of August 2014, there were 135 full-time virtual charter schools operating in 23 states and the District of Columbia – about twice as many as in 2008 – and serving approximately 180,000 students. A majority of the schools are run by for-profit organizations and serve large numbers of poor and white students.

The recommendations come on the heels of reports by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, the Center on Reinventing Public Education and Mathematica Policy Research that showed when compared with their classroom-based traditional public school counterparts, full-time virtual charter schools fail across multiple metrics.

For example, in math and reading in a given year, full-time virtual charter school students learn essentially no math compared with their peers in classroom-based traditional public schools, according to the Center for Research on Education Outcomes report. In fact, students in virtual charters, the report showed, experienced the equivalent of 180 fewer days of learning in math and 72 fewer days of learning in reading in comparison with traditional public school students.

Moreover, all subgroups of students enrolled in virtual schools – including when students are broken down by race, economic background and native language, as well as students in special education – reportedly perform worse in terms of academic growth than their classroom-based peers.

“If traditional public schools were producing such results, we would rightly be outraged,” the groups charged in their set of recommendation. “We should not feel any different just because these are charter schools.”

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The recommendations underscore that there is a place for virtual charter schools, especially for rural students seeking to avoid a lengthy bus ride, home- or hospital-bound youth who want to stay in school despite an illness, and high school students looking for an alternative to dropping out.

Still, the groups called on state policymakers to ensure the sector is more tightly monitored so students are not slipping through the cracks.

“A few states have opted to simply ban full-time virtual charter schools, but this solution risks limiting parental choice without giving otherwise high-performing virtual charter schools a chance to operate,” said Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “This is why we need a better regulatory framework to govern full-time virtual charter schools.”

Eight states do not allow full-time virtual charter schools, according to the alliance report: Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Virginia.

Currently, enrollment in full-time virtual charter schools is highly concentrated in three states – Ohio, Pennsylvania and California – which collectively enroll over half of full-time virtual charter school students nationwide, according to National Alliance research.

In Ohio alone, some schools enroll upward of 10,000 students.

“If Ohio leaders are serious about improving student outcomes for virtual-school students, they’d be wise to consider these recommendations,” Aldis said.

Online School Enriches Affiliated Companies if Not Its Students

Photo

Alliyah Graham, a senior in the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, an online charter school, in Liberty Township, Ohio, in February.

Credit
Andrew Spear for The New York Times

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, an online charter school based here, graduated 2,371 students last spring. At the commencement ceremony, a student speaker triumphantly told her classmates that the group was “the single-largest graduating high school class in the nation.”

What she did not say was this: Despite the huge number of graduates — this year, the school is on track to graduate 2,300 — more students drop out of the Electronic Classroom or fail to finish high school within four years than at any other school in the country, according to federal data. For every 100 students who graduate on time, 80 do not.

Even as the national on-time graduation rate has hit a record high of 82 percent, publicly funded online schools like the Electronic Classroom have become the new dropout factories.

These schools take on students with unorthodox needs — like serious medical problems or experiences with bullying — that traditional districts may find difficult to meet. But with no physical classrooms and high pupil-to-teacher ratios, they cannot provide support in person.

“If you’re disconnected or struggling or you haven’t done well in school before, it’s going to be tough to succeed in this environment,” said Robert Balfanz, the director of the Everyone Graduates Center, a nonprofit research and advocacy group in Baltimore.

Virtual schools have experienced explosive growth nationwide in recent years, financed mostly by state money. But according to a report released on Tuesday by America’s Promise Alliance, a consortium of education advocacy groups, the average graduation rate at online schools is 40 percent.

Few states have as many students in e-schools as Ohio. Online charter schools here are educating one out of every 26 high school students, yet their graduation rates are worse than those in the state’s most impoverished cities, including Cleveland and Youngstown.

With 17,000 pupils, most in high school, the Electronic Classroom is the largest online school in the state. Students and teachers work from home on computers, communicating by email or on the school’s web platform at distances that can be hundreds of miles apart.

In 2014, the school’s graduation rate did not even reach 39 percent. Because of this poor record, as well as concerns about student performance on standardized tests, the school is now under “corrective action” by a state regulator, which is determining its next steps.

But while some students may not have found success at the school, the Electronic Classroom has richly rewarded private companies affiliated with its founder, William Lager, a software executive.

When students enroll in the Electronic Classroom or in other online charters, a proportion of the state money allotted for each pupil is redirected from traditional school districts to the cyberschools. At the Electronic Classroom, which Mr. Lager founded in 2000, the money has been used to help enrich for-profit companies that he leads. Those companies provide school services, including instructional materials and public relations.

For example, in the 2014 fiscal year, the last year for which federal tax filings were available, the school paid the companies associated with Mr. Lager nearly $23 million, or about one-fifth of the nearly $115 million in government funds it took in.

Critics say the companies associated with Mr. Lager have not delivered much value. “I don’t begrudge people making money if they really can build a better mousetrap,” said Stephen Dyer, a former Ohio state legislator and the education policy fellow at Innovation Ohio, a Columbus think tank that is sharply critical of online charter schools.

“It’s clear that Mr. Lager has not done a service over all to kids, and certainly not appreciably better than even the most struggling school districts in the state,” Mr. Dyer added. “But he’s becoming incredibly wealthy doing a very mediocre job for kids.”

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The home office of Hannah Brown, an art teacher for the Electronic Classroom, in Columbus, Ohio.

Credit
Andrew Spear for The New York Times

Mr. Lager declined requests for an interview. In an emailed statement on Tuesday, he did not respond to questions about his affiliated companies but said the Electronic Classroom’s graduation rate did not accurately measure the school’s performance.

In the statement, he said many students arrived at the school already off-track and have trouble making up the course credits in time to graduate.

“Holding a school accountable for such students is like charging a relief pitcher with a loss when they enter a game three runs behind and wiping out the record of the starting pitcher,” his statement said.

The statement added that the school “should be judged based on an accountability system that successfully controls for the academic effects of demographic factors such as poverty, special needs and mobility.”

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In an interview, Rick Teeters, the superintendent of the Electronic Classroom, said many of the students were older than was typical for their grade, while others faced serious life challenges, including pregnancy or poverty.

Mr. Lager is correct in noting that the student body at the Electronic Classroom is highly mobile; last year more than half the school’s students enrolled for less than the full school year. And of those who dropped out of high school, half were forced to withdraw after being reported truant.

Also, according to state data, 19 percent of the students have disabilities, higher than the state average.

But the proportion of students who come from low-income families — just under 72 percent — is lower than in Cleveland, Columbus and Dayton. Close to three-quarters of the school’s students are white.

In a self-published book in 2002, “The Kids That ECOT Taught,” Mr. Lager wrote that “the dropout rate is the most critical issue facing our public education system but it is only the first of many problems that can be solved by e-learning.”

Through the Electronic Classroom, he wrote, he planned to make public education more efficient and effective.

He added, “No business could suffer results that any school in Columbus Public delivers and not be driven out of business.”

Peggy Lehner, a Republican state senator who sponsored a charter school reform bill that passed the legislature last fall, said the problem was the school, not the students.

“When you take on a difficult student, you’re basically saying, ‘We feel that our model can help this child be successful,’ ” she said. “And if you can’t help them be successful, at some point you have to say your model isn’t working, and if your model is not working, perhaps public dollars shouldn’t be going to pay for it.”

Some of those public dollars are being paid to IQ Innovations and Altair Learning Management, companies associated with Mr. Lager. Altair has had a contract with the school since 2000, a school spokesman, Neil Clark, said. According to federal filings, it received $4.2 million in 2014. Mr. Lager is the company’s chief executive.

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Administrative employees at the Electronic Classroom’s headquarters in Columbus.

Credit
Andrew Spear for The New York Times

Mr. Clark said Altair provided “a variety of services,” including a program of instruction, strategic planning, public relations, financial reporting and budgeting.

In filings with the Ohio secretary of state, Mr. Lager is listed as a registered agent for IQ Innovations; in campaign finance records, he was listed as the company’s chief executive as recently as 2015. IQ Innovations received $18.7 million from the school in 2014.

Mr. Clark said IQ Innovations had provided the school with grading software and digital curriculum materials since 2008.

He said that neither Altair nor IQ Innovations was required to go through a competitive bidding process.

At the school’s headquarters, in a former mall set at the back of a parking lot here, attendance clerks sit in a windowless room, tracking how often students log in to the network. Those who do not log in for 30 days are reported as truant.

Guidance counselors carry caseloads of up to 500 students each, and the schoolwide pupil-teacher ratio is 30 to one.

For some students, the Electronic Classroom can provide a release valve from the pressures or frustrations of a traditional school. Several students assembled by the school to talk to a reporter said they had experienced bullying or boredom before enrolling.

“Without the bullying, I was able to focus,” said Sydney DeBerry, 20, who left a private school to enroll in the Electronic Classroom, which she graduated from in 2014. “That was a big distraction, not only to my work but to my individuality.”

Students who made it to graduation said self-motivation was crucial. “Contrary to popular opinion, you cannot just log on once a week and get by and still pass your classes,” said Dianna Norwood, 19, who graduated last year and is now a student at Ohio State University.

But other students complained that the school could make it difficult to succeed.

Alliyah Graham, 19, said she had sought out the Electronic Classroom during her junior year because she felt isolated as one of a few African-American girls at a mostly white public school in a Cincinnati suburb.

It took three weeks for the Electronic Classroom to enter her in its system, she said. Then it assigned her to classes she had already passed at her previous school. When she ran into technical problems, she said, “I really just had to wing it.”

Ms. Graham, who hopes to pursue a career in medicine, has also been disappointed by the quality of assignments. She showed a reporter a digital work sheet for a senior English class, in which students were asked to read a passage and then fill in boxes, circles and trapezoids, noting the “main idea,” a “picture/drawing,” or “questions you have.”

“I feel like I did this kind of work in middle school,” Ms. Graham said.

When she turns in assignments, she said, feedback from teachers is minimal. “Good job!” they write. “Keep going!”

She hopes to graduate this spring.

Her cousin, Makyla Woods, 19, moved to Cincinnati from Georgia last year, as a senior, to live with her father. Since Ms. Graham was already enrolled in the Electronic Classroom, Ms. Woods decided to give it a try.

But she soon moved out from her father’s apartment, took a job at McDonald’s and stopped doing assignments. “I just got lazy doing work on the computer,” she said.

Kitty Bennett contributed research.

A version of this article appears in print on May 19, 2016, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Online School Sold as a Success, but Many Fail. Order ReprintsToday’s PaperSubscribe

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