Idaho’s virtual schools struggle

(UPDATED, 7 a.m., April 10 with Idaho Vision High School’s status as an alternative school.)

The more than 6,000 students enrolled in Idaho’s virtual schools perform well below their brick-and-morter peers on an array of academic performance indicators, from standardized tests to high school graduation rates.

The online schools serve a variety of unique and at-risk students:

  • Suspended or pregnant teens.
  • Students who are bullied or who learn at varying rates.
  • Students pursuing early careers in sports, music or the arts.

Families tied to the schools praise their online accessibility, which allows students the convenience of participating from home. Yet continually sluggish performance outcomes have sparked concerns from both state officials and top school-choice advocates in recent years.

“A lot of people are going to be mad at me for saying this, but those who believe in charter schools should be waving some red flags here,” said Terry Ryan, CEO at Bluum, a nonprofit devoted to advancing charter schools in Idaho.

Virtual educators defend the schools, arguing that lower outcomes stem largely from higher percentages of struggling learners, and that newly imposed state accountability measures don’t fully consider the schools’ unique challenges.

Here’s a look at Idaho’s virtual schools and their lagging performance.

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How virtual schools work

Students enroll in virtual schools through school districts and charter schools. The Idaho Public Charter School Commission (PCSC) governs 11 of Idaho’s 17 virtual schools, though overall digital enrollment through traditional school districts has increased in recent years.

PCSC schools account for 73 percent of virtual enrollment in Idaho, or about 4,400 students, with school districts enrolling the rest (about 1,600).

Once enrolled, students gain access to certified Idaho teachers who provide help and grade assignments remotely, via the internet. Parents help teach and ensure that students stay on task.

Idaho’s school funding formula, based on “average daily attendance,” allows school districts and charter schools to receive a full measure of state funds for online learners, even though these students don’t typically attend brick-and-morter schools. These state funds cover a range of costs, from teacher salaries to laptops to annual service fees for online curriculum providers.

Virtual schools fall behind by almost all measures

Fourteen of Idaho’s 17 virtual schools performed below state averages on either all or most of five key performance indicators in 2016-17.

Here’s a comparison of averages:

Idaho Reading Indicator (reading test for students in grades K-3)

  • All Idaho schools: 73 percent.
  • Virtual schools: 63 percent.

 Average proficiency on the ISAT (Idaho’s standardized test):

  • All Idaho schools: Math: 43 percent; English: 52 percent.
  • Virtual schools: Math: 22 percent; English: 48 percent.

Average scores on the SAT (college entrance exam): 

  • All Idaho schools: Math: 492; Reading and writing: 506.
  • Virtual schools: Math: 455; Reading and writing: 501.

High school graduation rates

  • All Idaho schools: 79.7 percent.
  • Virtual schools: 33 percent.

Idaho’s 2016-17 high school graduation rate, minus virtual school numbers, jumped from 79.7 percent to 82.3 percent, bringing the state to within 2 percentage points of the national average of 84.1 percent.

First-year college go-on rates

  • All Idaho schools: 48 percent.
  • Virtual schools: 33 percent.

Yet these numbers tell just part of the story.

Two PCSC virtual schools, Idaho Vision High School (IVHS) and iSucceed Virtual High School, posted ISAT math proficiency scores in the single digits, at 8.4 percent and 6.8 percent, respectively. (IVHS is also an alternative high school, with an emphasis on serving at-risk teens.)

On the other hand, Idaho’s third largest virtual school, Idaho Distance Education Academy, of the White Pine School District, outperformed state averages on both the ISAT and SAT.

IDEA assistance principal Velvet Gutridge attributes the higher scores to mastery-based learning and in-house digital curriculum. According to Gutridge, the district develops its own online learning programs, unlike at least 12 of Idaho’s virtual schools, which contract with out-of-state, for-profit curriculum providers. Developing its own online coursework allows IDEA to better match instruction to specific student needs, Gutridge said.

“We don’t know exactly what the other schools are doing, but we are very individualized for our students,” she added.

Supporters laud virtual schooling’s flexibility

Despite the low performance of Idaho’s online schools, parents and students across the state rave about their enhanced flexibility. 

Marlese Seaver teaches her sons, Connor and Brayden, in the family basement using Bonneville Online School’s digital coursework. More one-on-one teaching has streamlined the learning process, Seaver said. 

“We don’t typically spend more than two hours a day on school work, because it’s just me and them,” Seaver said.  

Barry Gans, a 2016 Inspire Connections Academy graduate and renowned dancer, relied on the flexibility of online learning to practice dance and gain entrance into New York City’s prestigious Juilliard School. Gans posted a 3.56 grade-point average his senior year.

Online learning also provides remote access to students who are simply unlikely to attend brick-and-morter schools, said Kelly Edginton, head administrator at Idaho Virtual Academy (IDVA), the state’s largest virtual school, with some 1,850 students.

“Watching a young mother earn her high school diploma, when she might not otherwise would have, says it all for me,” Edginton said.

Leaders split over virtual school accountability

The PCSC acknowledged in its most recent annual performance report that virtual schools likely serve higher rates of “at-risk, and academically struggling students than the state as a whole.”

Still, low performance last year prompted the commission to impose improvement sanctions on six of seven virtual charters up for renewal. These schools, defined as either “remedial” or “critical,” must comply with “specific, written conditions for necessary improvement,” or run the risk of closing their doors.

The PCSC also adopted a new performance-accountability framework in May 2017, focused on performance outcomes like math proficiency and high school graduation rates.

Some virtual school leaders say the PCSC’s accountability framework and renewal conditions are a poor fit.

Monti Pittman, administrator at Idaho Technical Career Academy, said he is “concerned that the framework includes measures that are different from the minimum state requirements,” according to minutes from an April 13 PCSC board meeting held prior to the implementation of the renewal conditions and performance framework.

“The challenges we face are not fully recognized in the renewal condition and are not recognized at all in the Performance Certificate,” Edginton said.

Other school-choice leaders say extra accountability is part of the broader charter school movement. Bluum’s Ryan acknowledged the difficulties tied to online education, but didn’t give virtual schools a pass on their low marks.

“Any school that has struggled to perform for three or four straight years should face the possibility of closure,” Ryan said.

While Ryan agrees that virtual schools are an alternative to students who do not succeed in a traditional setting, he worries that too many parents see them as a fix-all. Ryan urged families to carefully consider the challenges tied to online learning.

Online learning requires a strong support system in the home, said Ryan, who is a trustee on IDEA’s school board. Without it, students won’t likely succeed.

Disclaimer: Idaho Education News and Bluum are funded by the  J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation.

Idaho Education News data analyst Randy Schrader provided data and information for this story.

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