Analysis: The virtual charter graduation rate debate

Idaho’s virtual schools have been unfairly blamed for a decline in the state’s graduation rate, two charter school leaders said late Tuesday.

And in fairness, a number of factors account for the state’s dropping graduation rate — including a new method of calculating the numbers.

The back-and-forth began Monday morning, when State Board of Education President Don Soltman addressed the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. Soltman said the state’s 77.3 percent graduation rate for 2013-14 can be traced to two low numbers — a 20 percent graduation rate in the state’s virtual charter schools, and a 36 percent graduation rate in the alternative high schools. The numbers for conventional public high schools came in at 88 percent; for the remaining charter schools, the number was 91 percent.

Within a four-minute span late Tuesday afternoon, two charter school leaders sent out separate statements taking Soltman to task for singling out virtual schools.

“President Soltman is playing the blame game and overlooking the facts and circumstances of these students,” said the Coalition of Idaho Charter School Families.

“It is wrong to blame Idaho’s online schools for the state’s declining graduation rate,” said Kelly Edginton, head of school at the Idaho Virtual Academy, Idaho’s largest charter school. “It is statistically impossible for the state’s overall graduation rate to have been significantly impacted by Idaho’s virtual schools, which serve only about 1 percent of the student population.”

Edginton’s 1 percent figure is a bit of an underestimate. Idaho Virtual Academy has a fall enrollment of 2,237 — and its student numbers have been dropping significantly. Idaho’s other virtual charters account for an additional 2,700 or so students. In other words, about 5,000 of the state’s 294,000 students attend virtual charter schools.

Meanwhile, it has been well-documented that the state has changed the way it calculates its graduation rates — aligning with the national standard for tracking high school students.

Once, the state tracked dropouts in the 12th grade only. Now, Idaho tracks students from ninth through 12th grade. It’s a more complete picture of how high school students are doing, but it also brought down Idaho’s graduation numbers. The 77.3 percent number, first reported by the State Department of Education in March, uses the new math — and represents a significant decrease from historical graduation rates that exceeded 90 percent.

As Idaho Education News first reported in December, the 77.3 percent figure challenged the assumption that Idaho’s high school graduation rate is a bright spot in the state’s K-12 system. In actuality, Idaho’s 2013-14 graduation rate ranked No. 41 in the nation — a low ranking that surprised Gov. Butch Otter and other state officials.

While Soltman didn’t mention Idaho’s ranking Monday, it’s clear the State Board wanted to dig into the numbers. Hence the breakdown released Monday — which called out alternative and virtual schools.

And hence Tuesday’s response from the virtual school community. At the heart of this response was the argument that virtual charters largely serve students who are at risk — students who have fallen behind in school, have suffered from extended illnesses or students who were victims of bullying in traditional schools. More than a third of Idaho Virtual Academy’s 10th graders come to school behind on credits, Edginton said Tuesday, and those numbers are even higher for 11th and 12th graders.

This isn’t likely to be the last word. Idaho’s new and troubling high school graduation numbers are just coming into focus. And that’s likely to reshape a lot of discussion about education in Idaho.