(TNS) -- Students who take classes over the Internet through online charter schools make dramatically less academic progress than their counterparts in traditional schools, according to a sweeping new series of reports released last week.
How stark are the findings?
Statistically speaking, the gains that online charter students saw in math were so limited, it was "literally as though the student did not go to school for the entire year," said Margaret Raymond, the director of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University.
Prepared by CREDO, the Center on Reinventing Public Education, and Mathematica Policy Research, the three-part National Study of Online Charter Schools represents the first comprehensive national look at the roughly 200 schools in the publicly funded, independently managed cybercharter sector. Such schools enroll about 200,000 full-time students across 26 states.
More than two-thirds of online charters were found to have weaker overall academic growth than similar brick-and-mortar schools. As a group, the schools were characterized by high student-to-teacher ratios, low student engagement, and high student mobility. They also offered students limited opportunities for live contact with teachers. From funding to enrollment to oversight, states are failing to keep up with the unique policy challenges that online charters present, the researchers contended.
Only in Georgia and Wisconsin did online charter schools show more promising results. Online charters in Florida, Louisiana, and Texas had the worst results, in both reading and math.
The findings "leave little doubt attending an online charter school leads to lessened academic growth for the average student," wrote the researchers from CREDO.
In response, the country's largest for-profit operator of online charter schools criticized the studies as based on outdated data and a questionable methodology.
National groups representing charters and online-learning proponents, meanwhile, described the results as alarming and troubling.
"There is a place for virtual schooling in our nation, but there is no place for results like these," said Greg Richmond, the president and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, in a statement.
Despite being a relatively recent phenomenon, full-time online charter schools now enroll about 8 percent of charter students nationwide, according to CRPE, a think tank affiliated with the University of Washington.
Overall, white students (71 percent of total enrollment) are overrepresented in online charters, while Hispanic students (12 percent) and English-language learners (0.4 percent) are underrepresented, according to Mathematica, which conducted a survey of 127 online charter principals for its study.
The Mathematica researchers found student-to-teacher ratios that averaged about 30-to-1 in online charters, compared with 20-to-1 for brick-and-mortar charters and 17-to-1 for traditional public schools. Other support staff were also scarce: Most of the online charters surveyed did not use tutors, teaching aides, or instructional assistants and had only one guidance counselor.
Because online charter students learn over the Internet, often via self-paced courses, proponents have questioned the relevance of such figures.
They have also pointed to online charters' use of "synchronous" technologies, ranging from phone calls to Web conferencing, as a strategy for allowing teachers to interact with a wide range of students in real time.
But the Mathematica researchers found that's more aspiration than reality.
"Students in a typical online charter school have less synchronous instructional time in a week than students in brick-and-mortar schools have in a day," they wrote.
In looking at the impact of attending an online charter school, the CREDO researchers contrasted the annual academic growth of students attending online charters with that of a comparison group that was similar in terms of grade level, gender, race/ethnicity, poverty, English-language-learner and special education status, and prior scores on state tests.
Members of the comparison group attended the traditional brick-and-mortar schools where their peers would most likely have landed had they not been cybercharter students.
The analysis focuses on academic growth, not absolute achievement.
The analysis CREDO conducted for its piece of the three-part study, called Online Charter School Study 2015, included data from 158 schools in 17 states and the District of Columbia.
In a statement, K12 Inc., a for-profit company affiliated with schools that enrolled more than one-third of online charter students in 2013, attacked that methodology, saying it's impossible to create legitimate "virtual twins" for online charter students, as the CREDO researchers purported to do.
In their analysis, the CREDO researchers found that online charter schools in 13 states showed far weaker gains in reading than traditional schools. In two states, no significant differences between online charters and traditional schools were found. Online charters showed positive effects on reading gains in Georgia and Wisconsin.
Online charters were not found to have a positive effect on mathematical gains in any state. In three states, no significant differences were found. The CREDO researchers found that online charters showed significantly weaker math gains than traditional schools in 14 states.
Just about any way the data were sliced for online charters—by racial and ethnic subgroups, for students in poverty, by instructional and management model, compared with brick-and-mortar charters—the story of weak academic growth in online charters was largely the same.
"All student profiles ... have weaker growth in online charter schools than in [traditional public schools]," the CREDO report says. "This is due to the overwhelming negative impact on student growth from attending an online charter school."
About two-thirds of online charter schools contract with for-profit education management organizations for help with curriculum, assessments, professional development, and management services.
K12 Inc., the largest such organization, said in its statement that it has been aware of academic challenges among its students for some time and has invested millions of dollars in efforts to improve.
"We have taken vigorous actions over the past two years to meet these challenges with results not reflected in this study," the statement says. "We are proud of where we are today and where we are going."
In a statement, Nina Rees, the president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said she was "disheartened to learn of the large-scale underperformance of full-time virtual charter public schools."
She cited possible changes that might help the sector, including funding online charters based on performance, rather than enrollment.
Rees also noted that the new reports do not address students in brick-and-mortar schools who take an occasional course online, or "blended" models that combine online and face-to-face instruction. Full-time online schools operated by states and districts were also not included in the CREDO, CRPE, and Mathematica studies.
Those caveats aside, the new findings provoked a common reaction from researchers and practitioners alike.
"My recommendation to policymakers is to first address the quality-assurance question before continuing to open up access" to online charters, said Susan Patrick, the president and CEO of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning.
©2015 Education Week (Bethesda, Md.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.