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Online Charter Students in Ohio Perform Far Worse Than Peers, Study Finds

Students in Ohio's burgeoning full-time online charter schools perform far worse on state assessments than similar students in brick-and-mortar charter and regular schools, according to a new study from researchers at New York University and the RAND Corporation.

The schools, which deliver instruction entirely or primarily via the internet, tend to attract lower-income, lower-performing white students, then fail to provide those children with the supports they need, the study concluded. 

"Students in Ohio e-schools are losing anywhere between 75 days and a full school year of learning compared to their peers in traditional public schools and brick-and-mortar charter schools," Andrew McEachin, a policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, said in an interview.

"If kids are in e-schools for a long time, they're likely going to fall very far behind their peers."

The findings are outlined in a study titled "Student Enrollment Patterns and Achievement in Ohio's Online Charter Schools," published today in the academic journal Educational Researcher. They closely mirror a nationwide 2015 study of cyber charter school performance by Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes, which found that more than two-thirds of the country's 200 or so cyber charters perform worse than comparable traditional schools.

The findings are more bad news for Ohio's e-schools, nine of which are currently being targeted by the state education department as part of an effort to claw back more than $80 million in taxpayer funds. Following a series of attendance audits conducted last year, state officials contend the nine schools were paid for more than 9,000 students who did not complete enough coursework to be considered full-time. The state's largest e-school, the 15,000-student Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, has contested the results via a lawsuit and administrative appeals.


Read Rewarding Failure, Education Week's 8-month investigation of the cyber charter industry.


The new analysis is based on state data covering nearly 1.7 million Ohio students per year from the 2009-10 school year through the 2012-13 school year.

McEachin and June Ahn, an associate professor at NYU, used that information to compare how students in e-schools, regular charter schools, and traditional public schools performed on the Ohio Achievement Assessments (in grades 3 and 8) and the Ohio Graduation Test (in grade 10) in four subjects (math, reading, science, and history.) Their analysis controlled for such factors as race, eligibility for a free or reduced-price lunch (a measure of student poverty), and prior academic achievement. They also focused their comparisons on students who had previously attended the same school as each other.

"Across all subjects and grade spans, we see that students in e-schools score significantly lower than students in traditional charters and public schools, even conditional on a variety of control variables," the study says.

E-school high school students were also significantly less likely than their peers in other schools to pass the Ohio Graduation Test, which is required to complete high school.

The disparities in academic performance were particularly pronounced among previously low-performing students. Higher-achieving e-school students fared somewhat better than other e-school students, but generally did not perform as well as they would have had they stayed in a traditional public school, the researchers concluded.

E-school operators and proponents of full-time online education frequently argue that such analyses are misguided because they don't adequately account for either the unusual mobility of e-school students or the special circumstances that may have pushed them to choose an online school in the first place.

McEachin of RAND acknowledged such concerns may be valid. But he said it is highly unlikely that any such factor would put a significant dent in the overwhelmingly negative findings that both CREDO and now RAND and NYU have consistently found across multiple states, grades, and time frames.

"Low-performing students on average tend to choose online schools, but it doesn't seem like these schools are set up to have the resources they need," McEachin said.

In addition to examining academic achievement, McEachin and Ahn also looked at enrollment patterns of Ohio students.

The state's total e-school enrollment grew from 22,000 in 2010 to 35,000 in 2013—far faster than enrollment in brick-and-mortar traditional and charter schools.

Ohio e-schools disproportionately attract white students: 80 percent of e-school high school students in the state are white, the researchers found, compared to 45 percent of students in traditional public high schools. And more than half of students in Ohio's brick-and-mortar charter schools are Black, compared to 10 percent of e-school students.

Some of that discrepancy is due to the state's geography, McEachin said. Ohio's brick-and-mortar charter schools tend to be located in urban areas, where more black families live, while Ohio e-schools draw from across the state, including predominantly white rural areas where brick-and-mortar charters are not generally an option.

To account for that, the researchers conducted an analysis focused on parts of the state where a diverse mix of students lived and had access to both charter and e-schools.

In those areas, black students were still 17 to 30 percentage points less likely than their white peers to enroll in an e-school.

Overall, McEachin said, the study is another piece of a growing research base showing big problems in the full-time online charter sector, despite their continued popularity among some families. Policymakers would be well-served by better defining e-schools' role, then revamping accountability systems accordingly, he said.

"It doesn't make sense to continue doing what we're doing if kids' outcomes are going to be so much worse," McEachin said.

"It's important to figure out why kids are choosing this option, and build some of that into what's working, instead of continuing down this path."


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