by Kenneth J. Retzl, Ph.D.
Recently, the Guinn Center released a policy report analyzing the academic performance of Nevada’s virtual charter schools. The Guinn Center’s report concludes that Nevada’s virtual charter schools are never the lowest performing schools in the state; however, in nearly all measures, these schools perform below the statewide average. This blog provides an overview of virtual charter schools, as well as the specific conclusions of the report.
Charter schools are public schools that are independently run and receive greater flexibility over operations and management in exchange for increased performance accountability. These schools may operate like traditional public schools with their own buildings and campuses (referred to as “brick-and-mortar” schools). Some may only offer remote online instruction (“virtual charter schools”), and still others may provide some combination of remote and in-class instruction (‘blended” or “hybrid” charter schools). Virtual public charter schools are an important educational option for many students and families in Nevada, but enrollment in these schools remains relatively limited. In Nevada, 1.2 percent of students, or 5,712 students out of total K-12 enrollment of 485,768, were enrolled in virtual charter schools during the 2017-2018 school year.
In recent years, virtual charter schools around the country have faced increased public and legislative scrutiny, largely due to low academic performance, particularly when compared to other schools. In a 2015 study, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) concluded that, as a whole, academic growth in virtual charter school students was lower than in traditional public schools and brick-and-mortar charter schools. However, the study noted that some individual online schools outpaced the growth noted in more traditional educational settings. The study concluded that “it is possible for online charter schools to produce stronger growth, but it is not the common outcome.” A study of New Mexico-based charter schools noted that virtual charter schools produced lower academic outcomes while also serving fewer at-risk students. In Idaho, students attending virtual charter schools performed worse in both reading and mathematics than did students in traditional brick-and-mortar schools.
Table 1 compares performance data across different types of schools in Nevada using the state’s accountability framework, the Nevada School Performance Framework (NSPF). As displayed in Table 1, the average star rating is lower for state-sponsored elementary and middle school virtual charters than for other types of schools. Among high schools, both district-sponsored and state-sponsored virtual high schools have the lowest star rating among all categories of schools.
Table 1 – Academic Outcomes in Nevada, by School Type
Against the backdrop of the national reports, the Guinn Center examined the performance of virtual charter schools to determine how these schools are performing compared to other educational options. We invite interested readers to the download the full report, but for simplicity, the conclusions are summarized below. In the report, each conclusion is fully supported by data obtained from the Nevada Report Card.
- Demographically, virtual charter schools enroll a higher percentage of white students than the State Public Charter School Authority (SPCSA – Nevada’s public charter school authorizing body) or State of Nevada average. Additionally, virtual charter schools enroll very few, if any, students who are classified as English Language Learners.
- Results from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium standardized test (SBAC) suggest virtual charter schools are operating with both lower than average proficiency rates and student growth.
- Grade 3-8 ELA and mathematics proficiency rates at virtual charter schools are below the statewide average. Additionally, when demographic characteristics are controlled for at the elementary school level, virtual charter schools are predicted to have proficiency rates between 20 to 25 percent lower than brick-and-mortar schools.
- The amount of learning (measured by annual student growth) that is occurring at virtual charter schools is lagging most schools in the State of Nevada, with several schools exhibiting “low” growth as defined by the Nevada Department of Education.
- High school academic performance, as measured by the ACT, suggests students at Leadership Academy High School are outperforming many other schools in the state. The three remaining virtual charter high schools exhibit results below the state average.
- Graduation rates at three out of the four virtual high schools is below the statewide average. Additionally, virtual charter high schools are performing near the bottom of all Nevada high schools in getting students college and career ready.
- Virtual schools in Nevada show high transiency rates and are some of the highest in the State. The cause of transiency warrants further investigation.
- The results from the NSPF comparison suggest that most virtual charter schools are 1- or 2- star schools (the exception being Leadership Academy and Nevada Virtual Academy High Schools). Additionally, Nevada Connections Academy and Argent Preparatory Academy’s most recent graduation rate is less than 60 percent, placing them in immediate danger of contract termination. These low star ratings and graduation rates places many schools at risk of contract termination by the SPCSA.
These findings, suggesting the inconsistent (and often low) performance of virtual charter schools operating in the state, have also received the attention and scrutiny of some lawmakers and the SPCSA. The current law (Nevada Revised Statute 388A.330) states that the sponsor of a charter school can reconstitute the governing body of a charter school, revoke the written charter, or terminate a charter contract for the following reasons:
- If the charter has persistently underperformed, based on performance indicators and metrics presented in the performance framework of the charter school.
- If the charter school operates a high school with a graduation rate in the previous year of less than 60 percent.
- If the charter school operates an elementary, middle, or junior high school that is rated in the lowest 5 percent of elementary, middle, or junior high schools in the state, based on the results of the NSPF.
- Student achievement and school performance at the charter school is deemed unsatisfactory, based on results of the NSPF.
Given the low performance of virtual charter schools and the potential for several of these schools to have its charter revoked or the governing body reconstituted within a few years, the Guinn Center suggests the charter schools, SPCSA, and legislators consider the following actions:
Strengthen Accountability for Virtual Charter Schools
- Nevada law requires all schools with an enrollment greater than 10 students to receive a star rating under the NSPF. However, NRS 385A.740 allows all public schools, including charter schools, to petition to also be rated under the Alternative Performance Framework (APF).
- Collect better data: Track reasons for students who transfer into/from a virtual charter school.
Improve Alignment of Student Needs at Virtual Charter Schools
- Consider an application process that includes criteria to increase the chances of student success.
Manage Enrollment at Virtual Charter Schools
- Consider an enrollment cap for under performing virtual charter schools.
- Mandate that district-sponsored virtual charter schools are only allowed to enroll students who physically reside within the sponsoring school district.
Fund Virtual Charter Schools More Efficiently
- Consider alternative methods of funding virtual charter schools based on either actual costs of instruction or student achievement.