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Investigation Alleges Colorado’s $100 million For Online High Schools Brings Woes

A three-part investigative series in Colorado and published in The Colorado Springs Gazette takes a jaded look at the online high school programs in Colorado and concludes that data shows state-funded online schools are failing the students. Burt Hubbard and Nancy Mitchell report that Colorado taxpayers will spend $100 million this year on online schools. They say those schools are largely failing elementary and high school students according to state records and interviews with school officials. Here at WiredAcademic, we are very interested in the effectiveness of online education in the high school market. State audits of these programs are very good indicators of effectiveness. Here are some of the highlights from the Colorado investigation: 

The I-News Network, a Colorado-based news consortium, and one of its partners, the nonprofit Education News Colorado, spent 10 months investigating what’s happening with the thousands of Colorado K-12 students who try an online school each year.

The investigation used previously unreleased Colorado Department of Education data to document the path of 10,500 students who were enrolled in the 10 largest online schools beginning in 2008. Those students accounted for more than 90 percent of all online students for the 2008-09 school year. The analysis found that in Colorado:

Half the online students leave within a year. When they do, they’re often further behind academically than when they started.

• Online schools produce three times as many dropouts as they do graduates. One of every eight online students drops out of school permanently – a rate four times the state average.

• Millions of dollars are going to virtual schools for students who no longer attend online classes.

• The churn of students in and out of online schools is putting pressure on brick-and-mortar schools, which must find money in their budgets to educate students who come from online schools mid-year.

One state official responded to the results by pointing out that Colorado spends $100 million for online schools while it is cutting between $200 million and $300 million per year from traditional schools. Defenders of the online high schools point out that they serve troubled students already, where online learning is a last resort. But the investigation questions that argument:

While some measures for at-risk students were not available, the I-News/EdNews analysis shows that most online school students do not appear to be at-risk students. Only about 120 students of the more than 10,000 entering online programs last year were identified as previous dropouts returning to school, and only 290 entered online schools after spending the prior year in an alternative school for troubled youth.

In addition, most are not struggling academically when they leave their traditional schools.

Among the 2,400 online students who had taken a state standardized reading test in a brick-and-motor school the year before, the analysis showed that more than half had scored proficient or better.

Here are some other interesting points from the story: 

  • The analysis also looked at dropouts – those students who leave school permanently. In Colorado’s online schools, dropouts outnumber graduates by three to one. That’s the reverse of the statewide average, where graduates outnumber dropouts by three to one.
  • In Colorado, online schools grew seven times faster than conventional schools last year.
  • Online schools were popular in small, rural districts, which typically get higher per-pupil funding. That changed in 2007 and online students are now funded at a flat rate of $6,228, slightly less than average per-pupil funding statewide.
  • Schools get that set amount of per-pupil funding based on annual student counts taken at the beginning of October. This year, Colorado expects to spend $100 million in state funds for some 18,000 students to attend online schools.
  • In each of the past three years, however, half the online students have left their schools within a year.
  • State documents make it difficult to pinpoint exactly when students leave a school. However, a comparison of the October student count data and districts’ end-of-year data, shows the number of mid-year transfers was at least 1,000 students a year – and perhaps many more. That means at least $6 million annually went to online schools for students who weren’t there all year.
  • The I-News/EdNews analysis looked at test scores for online students who’d previously been in traditional brick-and-mortar schools, and found that scores dropped once students entered online schools. For example, 59 percent had scored proficient or above in reading while in a brick-and-motor school. But after a year in online school, only 51 percent achieved that score.
Some in the state say online schools must inform students better – during recruitment – about their responsibilities and the school’s expectations in an online school. Some state officials are looking to create a task force to deal with the problems of online school dropout rates.
  • In the meantime, some Colorado school districts – including both Florence and St. Vrain – have chosen their own way to combat losses to the online schools: They’re starting their own online programs.
Via The Colorado Springs Gazette
From the I-News investigative journalism project:

Part 1) Colorado’s online schools will get $100 million from the state this year despite a record of high turnover and low achievement. Plus, how online schools impact El Paso County’s seven largest districts. Read more:

Part 2) An analysis shows that students’ test scores drop after they enroll in online schools. Read more:

Part 3) Despite a 2006 audit blasting the Colorado Department of Education for failing to monitor online schools, the lax oversight has continued. Read more:

by joiseyshowaa via Flickr under Creative Commons






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