Say What You Will, Online Charter School Graduation Rates Are Still Too Low

Jun 9, 2016 12:00:00 AM

by Alex Medler

Mary Gifford, representing K12 Inc., the nation’s largest provider of full-time online education, takes exception to analysis that she considers too judgmental regarding the low graduation rates found in full-time virtual schools. The report from GradNation found that virtual schools graduate 40 percent of their high school students on time. Gifford argues that four-year graduation rates don’t capture results of students who take longer to graduate, or the progress made by students who come from difficult circumstances. I stand by my post. As the GradNation report and my own piece both explain, the analysis included five-, six- and seven-year graduation rates. The GradNation report indicated that a fifth year adds about 3 percent to the graduation rate on average; the sixth year adds 1 percent; and the seventh year adds 0.6 percent. At best, [pullquote] online charter schools’ seven-year grad rate might be as high as 45 percent, which is still unacceptable[/pullquote]. Data from a Colorado school that K12 used to run is illustrative. Accounting for the best results for the years that K12 ran the school, and also figuring rolling averages and rates up to seven years, this school had graduation rates between 11.9 percent and 25.4 percent. Gifford also asserts that on-time graduation is not a reasonable metric because students enter virtual schools so far behind. This also requires a deeper look. The GradNation report compared the cyber schools’ 40 percent grad rate to Alternative Education Campuses (AECs), which are designated by states as serving at-risk youth who are unlikely to graduate. The AECs in the study graduated 52 percent of their students. If K12’s argument is that their students share the same challenges as those in AECs, then they should document that evidence. If we assume their students are as disadvantaged as students in AECs, available data suggests that those students would be better off enrolling in an AEC where they would have a 12 percent better chance of graduating. I shared similar concerns with K12 leaders several years ago, when K12’s Colorado school made the news. At the time, I suggested that because the results were so problematic, it was in their interest to hire an independent, third-party evaluator to justify ignoring official state data. Until I see such an analysis, I will rely on available data, which tells me we have a huge problem.

Alex Medler

Alex Medler is Senior Director of the National Charter School Resource Center (NCSRC) with Safal Partners. Medler is a national expert on charter school policy who has worked in education reform since the earliest days of the charter movement. Through Safal Partners, Medler also advises foundations, state education agencies, charter authorizers and other clients in the U.S. and overseas. Prior to joining Safal Partners, he directed policy and advocacy for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, chaired the board of state-wide charter authorizer in Colorado, directed research and policy development for the Colorado Children’s Campaign, led national activities for the U.S. Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program, and directed charter school and school choice work for the Education Commission of the States. He has a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Colorado Boulder, and lives in Boulder with his wife and two children.

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