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Online Algebra Worse for High-Achieving Students, Study Finds

High-achieving North Carolina 8th graders who took Algebra 1 online performed worse than similar students who took the course in a traditional classroom, according to a new study from researchers at Northwestern University.

"There's lower academic performance in a virtual classroom. Parents should know there's a cost to going online," said Jennifer Heissel, a researcher at Northwestern's School of Education and Social Policy and the lead author of the study, in a statement.

The study, officially titled "The Relaitve Benefits of Live Versus Online Delivery: Evidence From Virtual Algebra I in North Carolina," was published in May in the journal Economics of Education Review.

Heissel, who previously worked in North Carolina's state department of public instruction, and her colleagues focused on North Carolina's Columbus County schools, which in 2011 adopted a new policy that for the first time allowed advanced 8th graders to take Algebra 1 online. 

The researchers compared the performance of students who took advantage of that new online opportunity to the performance of two groups of students: fellow advanced 8th graders who chose to take Algebra 1 in a traditional classroom, and similar students who waited until 9th grade to take Algebra 1 in a traditional classroom.

Though students in all three groups passed Algebra 1 at roughly the same rates, the students who took the course virtually as 8th graders performed significantly worse on tests. The gap was greater than the gap in performance between North Carolina students with a typical teacher and students with a teacher with weak credentials found in previous studies.

The findings come as part of a wave of emerging new research into students' academic performance in online environments. Two recently published analyses, for example, looked at the impact of online credit recovery courses on Chicago and Montana students who had fallen behind in traditional classrooms. A 2015 Stanford University study of the country's full-time online charter schools, meanwhile, found the schools had an "overwhelming negative impact" on students. 

Over 1 million K-12 students now take at least one virtual course every year, and many states have made at least some online education a requirement, according to the Northwestern researchers.

The negative outcomes for even high-performing students in virtual classrooms is particularly troubling, Heissel said in the statement.

"Generally, no matter what you throw at high achievers, they end up fine," she said. "If even the advanced students can't do well, why would we think it would work well for all?"

The North Carolina effort at the heart of the newest study was successful, however, in its goal of promoting more equitable access to Algebra 1 at a reasonable cost, particularly for rural schools.

The question posed by the study: How should policymakers weigh the value of leveraging virtual instruction to promote greater access, if those environments don't promote equitable outcomes?


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