If online educators and policymakers are going to create accurate measurements to determine the effectiveness of full-time online learning programs, they'll need to find a way to quantify a student's performance against the academic goals he or she set when entering the online program, according to a new report published Tuesday.
The report, released by the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, here at its annual Virtual School Symposium, also suggests measuring individual student knowledge growth, regardless of the starting or finishing point, and refining data systems to more easily track students' progress as they transition to and from virtual programs.
But while those and other suggestions in the report echo informal recommendations online learning leaders have made for several years, the notion of accounting for "fidelity to a student's academic goals," as the report calls it, is a bit of a surprise. It's also an apparent response to poor student retention in many full-time virtual programs, which virtual school advocates say may result from students enrolling in virtual schools as a last resort, or as a temporary solution.
"This last point emerged in our focus groups," said iNACOL President Susan Patrick, whose organization spoke with more than 40 virtual education leaders and practitioners before crafting its suggestions. "It's tied into [students'] reasons for mobility."
The report also included suggestions for measuring the effectiveness for individual courses, although those weren't as extensive.
During last year's symposium, the full-time virtual school world had just begun responding to a steady stream of negative publicity in the media, in part prompting the work that led to the study released Tuesday. Previously, iNACOL has issued standards that stipulate the components of quality online courses, or "inputs," but this is its first foray into measuring "outcomes."
In addition to the report's stipulation about fidelity to student academic goals, the study also calls for evaluating the effectiveness of full-time virtual programs through a combination of measures that gauge student proficiency, individual student growth, graduation rates, student college and career readiness, and programs' closing of the achievement gap.
Patrick has warned that some current measures of quality, such as measuring completion based on a one-time count of students at an arbitrary date during the year, or measuring student achievement based only on whether they hit a specific achievement benchmark rather than how much growth they show from start to finish, are actually counterproductive to creating effective online programs.
But she also stressed Tuesday that it is up to online learning advocates to push for state policymakers to make changes allowing for quality measures mirroring iNACOL's suggestions.