Two years ago, Gov. John Kasich and the Ohio legislature approved a law that threw out first-year test scores after it was discovered that student performances plummeted when they switched from a traditional public school to a stay-at-home charter school.
They cited high mobility of the students — transferring in and out — as a concern.
One in five students attending an online charter school spends less than a year there, according to student mobility records reported by the Ohio Department of Education.
If they stay a second year, the online school will receive credit for their subsequent test scores, which are typically higher. But the students may never fully catch up from the learning time they lost the first year.
State officials weren’t as kind to public schools. They get no automatic exemption, even if returning students have trouble their first year back from an online school.
The state does exempt “high mobility” traditional public schools, or those where at least a quarter of students are enrolled for less than a year. All but a handful, however, don’t qualify.
At least 175 charter schools — or nearly half of all charters — also wouldn’t qualify. If they were regulated like traditional public schools, these charter schools would have to include first-year results on their report cards.
Ohio spends nearly $1 billion on charter schools, with $267 million and 38,000 Ohio children going to the online type.
With the lowest academic growth scores, these online charter schools are big beneficiaries of the exemption.
There’s no definitive reason why students struggle so much there the first year. Researchers have a few theories.
Loss of face-to-face interaction with a teacher can be detrimental to learning.
Workloads can stress this interaction. Student-teacher ratios in online classrooms can be three times larger than in brick-and-mortar classrooms.
And parents and students are not accustomed to a more independent style of learning. Students are responsible for logging online every day.
"Students, on average, will struggle that first year," said Matt Cohen, a chief research officer at the Ohio Department of Education. "If I was a parent, I would say that I want to know that I need to be prepared to step into that [online] environment."
He said both the school and parent are responsible for refocusing the student.
“It is a different environment. Some kids are more adaptable than others when they are put in a different environment.”
Some schools may be better at assisting students and families through the transition. The Beacon Journal requested data showing how report card grades change when the first-year scores are included, not thrown out. The numbers, which might be telling, were not immediately available.
Sponsors get a break
Broader exemptions became an issue earlier this month when the Plain Dealer reported that the state is excusing all test scores for some of the worst performing charter schools when ranking, and penalizing, the groups that sponsor them.
Sponsors are private organizations that approve the startup of charter schools and oversee academic performance, financial issues and governance.
They keep three percent of per pupil funding that flows to charter schools. The more students and schools they sponsor, the more revenue they receive.
Unlike the exemption for only first-year students, the state has removed all test scores for online and computer-based dropout recovery high schools when grading sponsors. These are the lowest-performing types of charter schools.
The state has yet to develop a report card for some of these schools, which have been open since the early 2000s.
If ranked too poorly, sponsors lose their authority to open new charter schools. Some sponsors have received the highest ranking, however, while sponsoring otherwise low-performing online charter schools and computer-based dropout recovery high schools.
Though there are only 24 online schools among the more than 380 charter schools in Ohio, they receive nearly one in three state dollars set aside for charter schools, or $267 million.
Thirteen of Ohio’s online charter schools are small and run mostly by traditional public schools. They enroll only local students and offer mainly diploma-driven classes for teenagers who have fallen behind, need more flexible work schedules or may be raising children.
The other 11 online charter schools are much larger, enrolling students who live anywhere in the state. As a group, they received 95 percent of all state funding for online charter schools last year.
The two largest — the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) and Ohio Virtual Academy — received $185 million in state funding.
Comparing report cards for statewide and local online charter schools is tricky. The smaller ones often have too few students to receive some grades, and the state has made adjustments to the grading process for the larger ones.
Nonetheless, the larger schools got no better than a C, and mostly all F’s or D’s on the most recent report cards. The smaller schools received a couple of B’s.
Two are run by influential for-profit companies: White Hat Management, which operates Ohio Distance and Electronic Learning Academy founded by Akron industrialist David Brennan; and Altair Learning, which operates ECOT and is owned by Bill Lager.
Brennan and Lager have given more than $1.4 million in political contributions to state lawmakers since 2009, the latest year reported online by the Secretary of State.
In addition to his online school, Brennan’s Life Skills dropout recovery schools also are not included — at least this year — in sponsor rankings.
Some dropout schools graduate less than 10 percent of students on time. But because credit-recovery charter schools enroll students who already are behind, the legislature asked the Ohio Department of Education to develop a different way to grade them.
Traditional public schools that enroll high school dropouts are not graded differently.
In previous years, when assessing the performance of the sponsors or choosing to close a school, the state included all charter schools.
Along with the online charter schools, the Beacon Journal counts 114 charters not included in sponsor evaluations.
They’ll be included again next year, said John Charlton, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education.
“We would wholeheartedly encourage the state to do that,” said Todd Ziebarth, director of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Despite the lack of accountability for certain schools, Ziebarth welcomes the new rules for sponsors. His and other national charter school advocacy groups called for more rigorous accountability a decade ago.
“We did get some changes passed at that time but obviously not the more comprehensive changes states are enacting right now,” Ziebarth said, adding that only Ohio and Minnesota — the only with nonpublic sponsors — have moved forward with plans to hold sponsors accountable.
©2015 the Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.