Students fall behind in virtual charter schools, study finds

Recent news stories disclosed that virtual charter schools have been a bad deal for Indiana taxpayers. A new study suggests the schools may have been an even worse deal for students.

The study, slated for publication in the journal Educational Researcher, finds that Hoosier students who switched from public schools to virtual charter schools experienced significant academic setbacks.

“We see substantial, persistent drops in math and English language arts achievement,” said study co-author Joe Waddington, an assistant professor of education policy at the University of Kentucky.

The study is based on a detailed analysis of seven years of Indiana test-score data for students in grades 3-8. It examines results for students who moved from public schools to virtual charter schools and for students who switched to brick-and-mortar charter schools.

Other co-authors are Brian Fitzpatrick and Mark Berends of the University of Notre Dame and Joseph Ferrare of the University of Washington Bothell. The study was first reported by Chalkbeat Indiana.

How badly did students fall behind when they moved to virtual charter schools? “For a student who is at the 50th percentile, we predict that after three years in a virtual charter school, they would fall back to roughly the 35th percentile in math and the 40th percentile in English/language arts,” Waddington said.

He said the effects are comparable to much-publicized learning gains attributed to certain highly effective charter schools in Boston and New York – but in the opposite direction.

It’s no secret that students in virtual charter schools tend to perform poorly on standardized tests. The schools’ supporters have said that’s because the students face unique challenges. But the researchers controlled for student characteristics and found the problem was with the schools, not the students.

The study comes on the heels of a State Board of Accounts investigation that found two virtual charter schools, Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, overbilled the state by $68 million over eight years by inflating enrollment figures. In the Indiana legislative session that’s about to conclude, Democrats pushed to put more restrictions on virtual charter schools, but Republicans who control both the House and Senate have balked.

The study finds that students who moved from traditional public schools to brick-and-mortar charter schools initially fell behind in math but caught up in the second and third year after they transferred. Those students neither gained nor lost ground in English language arts. In other words, switching to a regular charter school didn’t hurt students academically in the long run, but neither did it help them.

That’s on average. Waddington said there are some brick-and-mortar charter schools in Indiana that are highly effective, some that are average and some that are ineffective. But that’s not so with virtual charter schools, according to the study. Poor academic results were endemic to the sector.

“There’s almost no variation among the virtual charter schools,” Waddington said.

Indiana has about a half-dozen fully virtual charter schools, but some are large. In 2018-19 they claimed to enroll over 13,000 students, about a quarter of the state’s charter-school students.

Waddington said there could be legitimate reasons for students and parents to turn to virtual schools, especially in rural areas where there are no alternatives to the local public school.

“But they have not lived up to their expectations,” he said.

1 thought on “Students fall behind in virtual charter schools, study finds

  1. Pingback: What if e-learning isn’t enough? | School Matters

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