Understanding Colorado's Online Learners - Part II of III
The Colorado Department of Education (CDE) recently released two reports intended to provide a far better understanding of Colorado’s online students. Yesterday, Amanda Heiney from CDE gave us some background to understand why it commissioned these two studies. Post III addresses the second study, A Study of Online Learning: Perspectives of Online Learners and Educators. In this post, let’s dig into the first study, Characteristics of Colorado’s Online Students. Characteristics of Colorado’s Online Students, written by Amanda Heiney, Dianne Lefly, and Amy Anderson at CDE profiles Colorado’s online students. It utilizes data from the Colorado Basic Literacy Act, the Colorado Student Assessment Program, and the October and end-of-year student counts, and looks at students in three groups: grades K-3, grades 3-9, and secondary success / graduates / postsecondary readiness. Key highlights from the report are noted for each group below (these summaries are taken directly from the report).
In the earliest years of online learning, students attending online schools in grades K-3 changed schools more frequently than their non-online peers: less than 25% of online students remained in the same school for four years as compared to 45% of students in brick-and-mortar schools who remained in the same school over the same time period.
A higher percentage of students in online schools are being classified as on-grade level in K-3 using the Colorado Basic Literacy Act (CBLA) assessments, yet they score below proficient on the state reading assessment in 3rd grade. This sets online students up for a rougher road ahead than the typical Colorado student, as 70% of students who are non-proficient in reading in 3rd grade are still non-proficient in 9th grade on state assessments. CDE believes that assessments used to detect early literacy levels may not being used properly in online schools, however, this simply reinforces the concern many educators have that point-in-time assessments are insufficient ways to measure student achievement, and that there are better ways to measure student progress over time.
The study also looked at student mobility rate. Students who attend multiple schools during their academic career perform worse, on average, than students who have attended fewer schools. The impact of this finding is greater for online schools because students entering online schools in 9th grade are enrolling having attended more schools, on average, than students entering high school in brick-and-mortar schools.
More than half of incoming 9th grade online students are enrolling in an online school for the first time. Of incoming 9th graders who were in online schools previously, fewer than 10% had been enrolled in an online school for four years or more. However, this small percentage of students who remained enrolled in an online school for four years or more performed comparably to and sometimes better, on average, than all 9th graders statewide. This finding demonstrates that online schools are a good option for some students, in particular those who remain enrolled in an online school for multiple years.
Finally, the study looked at secondary students. Online schools’ graduation rates are much lower than graduation rates statewide and have been so consistently. In 2003-04, the graduation rate for online schools was 39% compared to the statewide rate of 82.5%. In 2010-11, the online school graduation rate was 22.5%, whereas the statewide rate was 74%. Dropout rates for online schools have also been much higher than the statewide rates. In 2010-11, the dropout rate for online schools was 13%, while the statewide rate was 3%. While more erratic than statewide rates, online school dropout rates have consistently been in the double digits.
A greater percentage of students are seeking an online school as their last school option before dropping out. In 2010-11, 59% of online dropouts (compared to 34% statewide) had transferred from another Colorado district or school within months of dropping out. However, while there are a number of students entering online schools as their last option before dropping out, there are also a number who are choosing an online school as the school they graduate from. Of online graduates, 44% transferred from another Colorado district or school within months of graduating as compared to only 6% of graduates statewide who had just transferred from another Colorado district or school in the months prior to graduating.
Colorado’s graduation rate for each school is based on the students graduating from that school at the end of their fourth year of high school. As a result, some of Colorado’s students most at risk of dropping out are linked with an online school at the end of that fourth year, regardless of how many schools (s)he attended prior to the final count date. This is a critical point to understand when looking at the bottom line graduation percentage.
This report provides an opportunity for us to better understand how to help Colorado’s online learners succeed, primarily through a better understanding of who they are. The fact that developing this study required grant funding and university researchers makes even more apparent the fact that the current tracking and assessment systems are lacking, and we must find better ways to track and assess students over time.