This piece was written in response to posts by Nelson Smith, senior adviser at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), and Alex Medler, an education policy consultant formerly of NACSA, criticizing online charter schools for their lackluster graduation rates. Below is an argument defending virtual schools. Following this piece, Alex Medler wrote an additional response.
There’s been much commentary following the release of the latest GradNation report, particularly among charter school leaders. The report notes a wide disparity in graduation rates among charter schools and calls out Alternative Education Campuses (AECs) and online schools for their low graduation rates, which led to some admonishments from others within the charter sector. Before we get too judgmental, let’s remember that the federal government’s four-year cohort graduation rate was built for a traditional school model. In fact, the National Governors Association task force credited with the creation of the four-year cohort advised policy makers to consider the “treatment of students whose graduation is delayed due to issues beyond a state’s or school’s control,” and to develop frameworks to “ensure schools are not penalized for helping struggling students successfully complete high school.” While the current approach may be effective at measuring graduation rates for schools with a stable group of students, it’s ineffective at measuring high schools that take in high numbers of under-credited transfer students, which is exactly the case for many AECs and online public schools. I agree with Nelson Smith, the federal graduation rate is limited and largely irrelevant to schools that serve mobile populations of these students. Of course, huge kudos to charter schools with high graduation rates. They should be celebrated. But there is no examination of how charter school enrollment practices impact graduation rates. Do charter schools with high graduation rates actively backfill? Do they accept under-credited transfer students in grades 10, 11, and 12 who are not on track to graduate with their four-year cohort? Don’t get me wrong, I believe charters should have autonomy to set their own enrollment policies (as long as they are consistent with state law), but we must be honest and admit they have a direct impact on a school’s aggregate test scores and graduation rates.
Taking a second glance
A closer look at data from several online schools shows that high school students who entered in the ninth grade and were enrolled at the school four years are graduating at rates that are at, near, or above the national four-year graduation rate. But these schools don’t restrict high school enrollment to ninth-graders. A 2015 report by Evergreen Education Group shows that more than one-third of new online school students in grades 10-12 enroll as credit-deficient. These students are already off-track for graduation when they enter online school. The same study found that more than one-half of online high school students enrolled after the start of the school year, which puts them at an even greater disadvantage. As public schools, online programs accept these students and commit to educating them, even if enrolling these students puts the schools’ accountability ratings in jeopardy. They don’t need to recruit these students. Parents are seeking alternatives (or districts are actively counseling them out of their schools and into online schools to get them off their rolls). Like them or not, [pullquote position="left"]online schools are the only public schools of choice for many, many families who don’t live in areas with high concentrations of alternative charter schools or other accessible school options. They are often both schools of last resort. Sure, online schools could turn these kids away and immediately see their graduation rates rise, but how does it serve the best interests of students and parents to send them back to schools they fled? We should measure fifth- and sixth-year graduation rates, as the GradNation report advocates, but let’s also develop measures that make every high school year matter. As Nate Davis proposes, let’s stop relying on four-year cohorts as the exclusive measuring stick and let’s start calculating annual progress toward graduation. If our system made every year count, students would have many opportunities to get back on track throughout their high school career, not just in the spring of their senior year. Students deserve to get support and attention before they hit the fourth year and become a liability to their schools. In order for educators to know what each student needs to make progress toward graduation every year, states should upgrade data systems and ensure sending schools are uploading that data so it is accessible to the receiving school the moment a student transfers. This ensures students take appropriate courses and are not incorrectly identified as “dropouts.” Like most challenging issues in education, context is badly needed, along with more and better data.
Mary Gifford is the senior vice president of education policy and external affairs for K12 Inc., an online learning provider. She served on the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools and as the state superintendent's appointee for 11 years. She is also the founder and former director of the Arizona Virtual Academy, an online public charter school.