State Online Learning Reports Reveal Growth, Concerns

Two new reports, from Minnesota and Colorado, offer additional insights into online learning’s rapid and rocky growth. These reports, combined with data from bothPennsylvania and Ohio, reinforce the necessity for policymakers, educators, and online learning advocates to pay as much attention to quality as they do to expansion.

Highlights from the Minnesota report, conducted by the state’s Office of the Legislative Auditor:

  • The number of part-time students in online schools nearly doubled and the number of full-time students more than tripled. An estimated 20,000 K-12 students took at least one online course during the 2010-11 school year; about 8,000 students took online courses offered by their own schools, and 12,000 took courses from state-approved “online schools.”
  • Since the 2006-07 school year, full-time online students have become less likely to finish the courses they start; when compared with students statewide, full-time online students were more likely to completely drop out of school.
  • The Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) has not assigned sufficient staff to fulfill its online learning responsibilities (MDE pushed back on this finding).

In Colorado, Education News Colorado and the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network spent 10 months investigating achievement, turnover and oversight at the state’s largest full-time online programs. A few highlights from their three-part series:

  • In Colorado, online schools grew seven times faster than conventional schools last year. This year, Colorado expects to spend $100 million in state funds for some 18,000 students to attend online schools.
  • Colorado’s school funding is based on a single “count” day, meaning that if a student is enrolled on a set day at the beginning of the year, the school receives full funding for that student. 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. (Important to note that the report does not detail how many students transferred the other way.)
  • Of 10,500 students in the largest online programs in fall 2008, more than half – or 5,600 – left their virtual schools by the fall of 2009. They were more than replaced by 7,400 new recruits by that fall. That new group also experienced high turnover, with more than a third of the students leaving by the end of that school year, the analysis showed.
  • Students who transfer to online programs from brick-and-mortar schools posted lower scores on annual state reading exams after entering their virtual classrooms.
  • Students who stayed in online programs long enough to take two years’ worth of state reading exams actually saw their test results decline over time.

Tomorrow, more on online school growth, performance, and mobility as we update our findings from Ohio, a state with one of the longest histories of online schooling.

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