Determining appropriate accountability measures for online schools: the Arizona example

In the next few days Keeping Pace is going to release a report titled School Accountability in the Digital Age: A closer look at state accountability systems and online schools, with a focus on student mobility and graduation rates. Once the report is out I’ll write about the main findings and recommendations. Although we didn’t realize it while we were writing the report, the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) has recognized many issues similar to the ones our policy brief will explore. In a draft proposal to the Arizona State Board of Education titled Accountability Determinations for Arizona Online Instruction Schools, the ADE discusses these issues and makes several recommendations for changes to the accountability system. Arizona has online charter schools and district schools, both of which can serve full-time and part-time students statewide if they are approved under the state’s Arizona Online Instruction (AOI) program. Arizona is among the states with the most students attending online schools, with nearly 50,000 unique students attending online schools as either part-time or full-time students as of SY 2012-13.

Among the issues that ADE has identified, and its proposed solutions for accountability for districts and charter schools with virtual school programs, are:

  • The current system leaves too many AOI schools as unrated. This situation violates the intent of state education code and the conditions of the waiver the state is seeking from NCLB requirements under the federal Department of Education’s flexibility rules. The changes would increase the number of schools receiving a rating.
  • AOI schools are required to have a 95% rate at which students participate in state testing. Despite ramifications for not reaching this level, some schools do not, and they are penalized even in situations when a student has taken the state test but is associated with a physical school. ADE proposes counting all students as having taken the test for AOI accountability purposes even if the student took the test while associated with a physical school.
  • Particular attention is on increasing the important of student growth relative to proficiency, and also on graduation rate calculations. It also recognizes that virtual schools serve a mobile population with diverse set of academic goals. The proposed system would reward schools for retaining under-credited students, and also reward schools for students’ growth towards graduation. It would also reward schools for graduating students in 5, 6, and 7 years.

The ADE proposal recognizes that most AOI schools do not fit the criteria of alternative schools, but that they also have student populations significantly different than most traditional schools. As such, the ADE seeks to create a new accountability system that would apply to AOI schools that accounts for the differences in student mobility rates, under-credited students, and other factors.

An upcoming blog post will discuss the findings of our research, which looked at several other states that are at various stages of determining how to address current accountability measurement shortcomings.