Ohio’s Online Charter Schools Struggle with Performance

The state has 22,000 students attending online charters, but a new report finds their overall performance is far worse than brick and mortar schools. Accountability issues are another concern.

by Jim Siegel, The Columbus Dispatch / February 20, 2019
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(TNS) — Overall academic performance at Ohio charter schools is a mixed bag, a new analysis released Tuesday found, but one fact is clear: Students at online charters are performing significantly worse than those at both traditional public schools and brick-and-mortar charters.

Online charter school students in Ohio get 71 fewer days of learning growth compared to students at other charters for reading, and 130 days less growth in math, according to a new study of charter school performance by CREDO, Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes.

"We're for great schools for all kids," said Margaret Macke Raymond, director of CREDO. "So the question for me is, where we see a few online schools doing really well for kids, why are we not diving into that and find out what they're doing?"

Approximately 22,000 Ohio students are attending online charter schools.

House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes, D-Akron, said she is frustrated because the report is not news to those around the Statehouse.

"We've known about the challenges and lack of accountability and slow performance issues," she said. "These types of technologies could have been instituted years ago so we weren't losing a generation of children to poor planning. I hope my colleagues really take this seriously. There are a lot of ways we could have fixed this a long time ago."

State lawmakers have been examining online charter funding in the wake of the ECOT mess, which led to the closure of the state's largest charter school after it was unable to prove its claimed enrollment figures and was ordered to repay the state $80 million. Some also are examining ways to potentially give online schools more ability to disenroll students who are not engaging in classwork.

"That is a potentially positive move that would hopefully make sure that students who aren't being successful won't languish," said Chad Aldis, vice president for policy and advocacy for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a school choice advocate and charter sponsor in Ohio. "The data shows there are students who are languishing. But there are students who are being successful. We have to make sure we get it right."

One idea that has been discussed is to fund online schools based on a blending of enrollment and academic achievement, be it test scores or completion of courses.

"Funding, to some degree, probably should be tied to performance," Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina, said of online charter funding. He also said there also is no reason why schools can't better utilize software that ensures students are engaged.

During the rollout of the study Tuesday, Rob Kremer, director of government relations for Pearson, which manages the online Connections Academy, pressed that the data should reflect that students who transfer into a school tend to struggle in their first year.

"If this latest study of Ohio charter schools factored for student mobility, we believe the results would be more positive for both brick and mortar charter schools and online charter schools..." Pearson said in a company statement.

But Macke Raymond said more than 40 percent of all charter schools are able to take transfer students and have no setback in their learning. "Just because a kid transfers doesn't necessarily mean there is going to be a learning loss."

Macke Raymond later said a 2015 CREDO national study of online charter schools showed students who transferred into an online school showed significantly lower performance during that year, but that performance went back up when they transferred back into a traditional school.

Macke Raymond also noted that online school advocates often point to students who struggle in traditional schools because of harassment and bullying. "Those things weren't happening in the year they were in the online school. I've never been able to reconcile the data to that."

Most states are taking after-the-fact, corrective action to online schools, Macke Raymond said.

"I don't see a lot of states trying to get out in front and trying to figure out what to do on a proactive basis."

Compared to past CREDO studies of Ohio in 2009 and 2014, overall charter school performance versus that of similar students at traditional public schools has shown some gains in reading, but has fallen further behind in math.

Using data from 2013 through 2017, the study found that charter students in Ohio are making similar gains in reading compared to students in traditional schools, but lag behind those students in math, equivalent to 41 fewer days of learning in a school year.

The performance is not consistent across all grade levels. Elementary and middle school charter students are performing as well as or better — significantly better in middle school — than traditional public students. But charter school results slip considerably for students in high school, or those labeled "multi-level" schools.

"Ohio's charter school sector still has very mixed results," Aldis said, adding that he's seeing some signs of progress.

He said charter schools are supposed to serve disadvantaged students, so he was encouraged that the study showed low-income black charter students are performing better than similar students at traditional schools, especially in reading.

"For parents in many of our major cities where charter schools are an important educational option, it's certainly something that should make them take note," Aldis said.

However, special education charter students performed significantly worse in math and reading compared to those in traditional schools.

Aldis said the study ran through 2017, so the impact charter school reforms passed in 2015 that place more accountability on school sponsors likely aren't fully reflected in the data. "It will take additional time to see what the long-term effect is."

©2019 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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