MYTH #1: Virtual Charter Schools Produce Academic Excellence

Virtual charter schools tend to paint a rosy, but nonspecific, picture of the academic achievement of their students. But it turns out that this picture is far from accurate.

In a 2008 study, it had been noted that students enrolled in Idaho’s brick-and-mortar charter schools scored measurably higher on Idaho’s federally-mandated assessment tests than did students enrolled in Idaho’s non-charter schools.

Small Child and ComputerBut in January of 2010, the Idaho Department of Education published a study that compared the academic achievement of students in the virtual charter schools with that of students in the rest of the public school system. To that point the general expectation was that students in the virtual charter schools would show academic excellence both because they are being taught at home and because they are enrolled in public charter schools. After all, how could a program with similarities to two such outstanding educational options produce anything but strong academic achievement?

Contrary to what most had expected, the 2010 report showed the opposite. Pages five through seven of that report demonstrated that:

1.  While students in Idaho’s brick-and-mortar charter schools scored significantly higher on the state assessment tests than did students in the regular public schools,

2.  Students in the virtual charter schools scored significantly lower on the same tests than did the students in the regular public schools.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, public schools are required by law to meet certain benchmarks on student assessment tests. If one digs deeply enough, one will find that 38% of Idaho’s public schools failed to make the adequate yearly progress in 2010. But among the virtual charter schools — including both IDVA and IDEA — the percentage of such schools that failed to make adequate yearly progress in 2010 was a whopping 67%.

A recent study of virtual charter schools in Colorado showed that half of the online students leave within a year. When they do, they’re often further behind academically than when they started. Similarly, online schools produce three times as many dropouts as they do graduates.  One of every eight online students drops out of school permanently in Colorado — a rate four times the state average.  In fact, the report on the study’s results starts with the claim that, “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.”

Similarly, a recent state audit of virtual charter schools in Minnesota drew some startling conclusions. Course completion rates among students in the virtual charter schools took a nosedive from 84% to just 63% between the 2006/7 and the 2009/10 school years.  While just 3% of students in Minnesota’s brick-and-mortar schools drop out before the end of the 12th grade, students in the state’s virtual charter schools were six times more likely to do so with an 18% drop out rate among those students.  Finally, on the state’s annual assessment tests, students enrolled in Minnesota’s virtual charter schools made only half as much progress academically as did the students in the state’s brick-and-mortar schools.

If a school repeatedly fails to make such progress, the federal statutes require the state to take over that school. Among Idaho’s virtual charter schools, both IDVA and IDEA are in danger of being taken over by the state unless they can turn the scores of their students around. The outcome of such a takeover could well be that both of those virtual charter schools — the two largest in the state would be shut down completely.

For parents concerned about the quality of their child’s education, this report should present a giant red flag. After all, where academic quality is a substantial motivation, why would parents willingly enroll their sons or daughters in a program that has produced such anemic results?


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