Two new studies point to a contradiction about full-time online schools – student academic performance is lower than that of students statewide but parents and students are positive about the online experience.
“The majority of students and parents surveyed believe that online learning is a better fit for them than a brick and mortar school; however, many students continue to perform poorly academically in online, despite greater satisfaction,” according to a new report on full-time online programs by the Colorado Department of Education.
The report, “Characteristics of Colorado’s Online Students,” and a second study are to be presented to the State Board of Education Wednesday. The second report, “A Study of Online Learning: Perspectives of Online Learners and Educators,” was done for the department by researchers at the University of Colorado Denver and surveyed student, parent and staff attitudes about online education.
Full-time online education has boomed in Colorado. The CDE study reports the number of online schools increased from nine to 35 between 2003 and 2011 and that enrollment grew from 3,248 students to 16,464. A little more than half of those students are in high school.
As schools have grown, so have worries about quality. A 2011 investigation by Education News Colorado and the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network found issues with student mobility, lagging achievement and lax oversight in the online system.
During the 2012 legislative session, some Democratic lawmakers considered legislation on the subject but no significant bills were introduced because of the press of other business and because of the reported lack of interest by House Republican leaders. The Nov. 6 election put Democrats back in control of both the House and Senate.
One 2012 measure, House Bill 12-1124, ordered a broad study of all types of digital learning. That privately-funded project is being done by the Colorado Children’s Campaign for the state and is due to the legislature by Jan. 31.
The state report presented to state board members was done because “as the number of students attending online schools has grown and changed over the years, interest and questions about online schools from policymakers, media, and the general public has been piqued. This study sets out to answer some of these questions,” according to the report summary.
Key findings of state report
- Early reading proficiency is crucial for online students, but online schools were less successful than all schools at identifying struggling readers up to grade 3.
- A larger percentage of ninth-graders new to online schools were non-proficient compared to all ninth-grade students.
- Online students are more mobile, and student movement between online schools is related to poor academic performance and a higher dropout rate.
- The online school graduation rate in 2010-11 was 22.5 percent compared to the state rate of 74 percent. The online dropout rate was 13 percent compared to about 3 percent statewide.
- Many students who chose online schools were dissatisfied with their schools and transferred because of school culture and communication problems.
- While the majority of parents and high school students surveyed believed online learning was a better fit, academic performance lags.
- Online schools should more accurately evaluate and diagnose younger students’ reading levels.
- Schools need to modify programs and services to meet changing demographic needs.
- Excessive movement between schools should be avoided, and when transfers are necessary it’s best that students move to a long-term situation.
- Push-out policies by schools and districts should be discouraged.
- Parents and students need to be better informed about the realities of attending online schools.
- The state needs to consider different funding systems for both online and traditional schools to better accommodate student mobility and competency-based, rather than seat time-based, learning.
Highlights of the UCD study
Researchers surveyed K-12 parents and grade 9-12 students and interviewed staff at a dozen online schools. Some 1,247 students and 1,982 parents responded. Both parents and students expressed high levels of dissatisfaction with traditional schools and high levels of absenteeism at those schools.
Student interest in online education is motivated by choice of classes, the desire to graduate early and by problems at previous schools, including falling behind in classes and needing to make up credits.
Parents said they liked the choice of online classes, had concerns about the environments at traditional schools and saw online as an alternative to home-schooling.
According to the report, online staff members who were interviewed recommended, among other things, more professional development for online staff and consideration of an alternative accountability system for online schools.
Online school stats
→ From 2003 to 2011, the number of online schools increased from nine to 35.
→ This school year, 47 districts offer a full-time online education option, including multi-district and single-district programs.
→ Pupil enrollment in online schools increased from 3,248 students to 16,464 between 2003 and 2011, with the largest growth in high school students.
→ Online students have become more like the overall student population but are still 61.3 percent white compared to 56.1 percent in the overall population, as of 2011. The percentage of free and reduced lunch students is also slightly behind the overall percentage statewide.