The NEPC report part 2: Further reflections, on characteristics of online schools

I commented on some of my concerns with the NEPC report here, but I also said that it has some useful research and ideas. In this and subsequent posts I’ll look at sections of the report and comment on what is useful and where I have concerns or disagreements. Section 1, which describes characteristics of online schools, has some useful information about online students. The entire field will benefit from aggregate information about the demographics of online students, particularly as more students choose online schools.

In some instances, the analysis would have benefitted from deeper scrutiny than simply a review of existing data. For example, the report notes that “the proportion of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch (FRL) in virtual schools is 10 percentage points lower than the average for all public schools: 35.1% compared with 45.4%.” We have heard from many online schools, however (and not just the schools operated by for-profit companies) that many online students do not identify as qualifying for FRL. They are not going to get a meal from their online school, so there is no reason to identify, and for at least some students they feel that there is some stigma associated with FRL.

Is this point significantly important that it will change the numbers? I don’t know. It seems reasonable and credible, but I’ve never seen an attempt to quantify the numbers further. NEPC, however, reports the FRL numbers from the data without even raising a point that is often discussed by online learning practitioners. If NEPC believe that the data are accurate and the schools’ beliefs about self-reporting of FRL is not, the report would benefit from an explanation of why that is the case.

A second area that the NEPC report touches on, but would benefit from further exploration and a more nuanced discussion, is performance of online schools as measured by Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). The report calls AYP a “weak measure” and says that “One should be cautious in drawing conclusions from such an imperfect measure, and one should be cautious in interpreting differences among groups of schools.” Further, “AYP is structured to benefit more stable schools, and it is not designed to reward growth.” Despite those accurate concerns and call for caution, the report provides findings based on AYP.

The report also discussed high school graduation rates, but only by providing a comparison of mean graduation rates based on “On-Time Graduation Rate.” I suspect the authors understand how many students are moving into online schools as a last resort, often when they are under-credited and, at best, need additional time to catch up and graduate. None of this nuance is reflected in the report.