Guest Opinions

Don’t blame virtual schools for Idaho’s graduation rate decline

State Board of Education Chairman Don Soltman recently told a legislative committee that alternative schools and virtual charter schools were the reason Idaho’s overall high school graduation rate had fallen from 83 percent to 77 percent. Soltman said the board will be researching the cause.

I hope they do. What they will find is it was Idaho’s adoption of the federal government’s graduation rate — not Idaho’s virtual charters schools — that led to the decline. Idaho’s virtual charter schools serve only about one percent of the student population. It is statistically impossible for the state’s graduation rate to have been significantly impacted by such small numbers.

The Board of Education should also use this opportunity to look closely at how the federal graduation rate unfairly penalizes schools with high mobility and those willing to serve undercredited transfer students.

The federal graduation rate is designed for traditional schools, not virtual schools or other alternative models. Under the federal calculation, students who take more than four years to graduate, earn a GED, or earn a diploma from adapted special education guidelines are considered “nongraduates.”

The four-year cohort assumes that students remain in the same school upon entering high school. That may be true for traditional schools, since most students are zoned into their local school, but not so for virtual charter schools. Almost every student enrolled in virtual charter schools transferred in from another school or education program. High percentages of these students enter behind in credits and not on track to graduate on time. Yet, the federal graduation rate does not account for this. Indeed, serving these undercredited students immediately and negatively impacts a school’s graduation rate.

Evergreen Education Group published research showing that nationally 35 percent of students who transferred to online schools in grades 10, 11 or 12 were behind in credits at the time of enrollment. The numbers are even higher at Idaho Virtual Academy (IDVA), the state’s largest virtual charter school. Between 2011 and 2015, over 51 percent of new seniors, 47 percent of new juniors and 34 percent of new sophomores were behind in credits when they enrolled.

For students who transfer to IDVA behind in credits, it may take five or six years to earn the credits they need to get a degree. IDVA helps them achieve their goal. IDVA also succeeds in graduating students within four years when they remained at the school through their high school career. Over 90 percent of the students who enrolled in the 2011-12 school year and remained enrolled until 2014-15 graduated on time.

Virtual schools often serve as a part-time solution. State data systems, however, do not effectively track students when they transfer from school to school. Under the federal calculation these students are often classified as “nongraduates” even if they have enrolled in a different school. By not accounting for such mobility it unfairly penalizes virtual schools. At IDVA, 71.6 percent of the students who transferred out of the school were calculated negatively into its 2014 graduation rate.

This is why education experts recommend reforming graduation rates. Rather than using a four-year cohort designed only for traditional schools, rates should measure progress toward graduation for the actual time the student is enrolled.

Virtual charter schools are an important part of our public education system and the only public school choice available to many families. IDVA is committed to helping all who choose our public school, regardless of students’ academic history and despite how it may impact graduation rates.

Kelly Edginton has been a teacher and administrator for IDVA since 2002, is an educational advocate and supports parent choice.