Leaders with North Carolina’s pilot virtual charter schools are disputing a report presented Wednesday to the N.C. State Board of Education that marked soaring dropout numbers and lower-than-expecting testing in the new programs.
Wednesday’s report counted withdrawal rates at both N.C. Connections Academy and N.C. Virtual Academy at about 26 percent, an increase on the programs’ already troubled numbers we reported in January.
This week’s report also includes data that would seem to show the schools are not meeting state accountability standards either, at least as far as third-grade testing is concerned.
Tammy Howard, director of the N.C. Department of Public Instruction’s (DPI) accountability division, reported both schools have a target this year of administering the Beginning of Grade 3 test to 95 percent of their students.
But Howard said N.C. Connections Academy tested just 105 of 140 students, about 75 percent, and N.C. Virtual Academy tested 134 of 147 students, or about 91 percent.
Both schools moved quickly to dispute the data, blaming incomplete calculations by the state, discrepancies between the school and the state’s enrollment records, and rapid fluctuations in enrollment for the problems.
Joel Medley, head of Virtual Academy, told board members Wednesday that state officials should not be factoring students who intended to enroll for a finite period of time into the calculation.
Otherwise, Medley wrote in a memo to state board members, it “presents overstated data that will be publicized in the press. Any reporting based on these inflated numbers could inadvertently dissuade families from seeking to enroll in a virtual charter school option.”
N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson countered Wednesday by questioning whether virtual charter programs wished to be treated differently than the state’s public and charter schools.
As we reported last May, Medley is the former head of DPI’s Office of Charter Schools before he left to accept the administrative position at Virtual Academy.
Leaders at Connections Academy agreed with Medley’s arguments, claiming in a separate memo to the board that, if the state were to follow that formula, their withdrawal rate would be about 18 percent.
From Connections Academy Principal Nathan Currie’s memo to the state board:
Families use this option for a point in time for many temporary reasons: finding a safe environment free from bullying, allowing a child to maintain their studies while recovering from a medical condition, a temporary displacement from their home, the child was behind their peers academically, and a myriad of other situations and circumstances.
These families never intended to use an online public school for the remainder of their child’s education but rather to provide a solution for a point in time. In these cases when a student withdraws it is because the problem has been resolved and the family returns to their previous school, likely a traditional public school. This is a positive outcome though no state accountability system measures it. Looking at a withdrawal rate without context does not provide anyone – a potential family, a NCCA teacher or administrator, a NCCA board member, or a regulator – a complete picture.
The virtual programs have their share of critics, who point to the high withdrawal rates and studies in other states that show virtual charter students lagging their traditional school peers as cause for concern.
But Medley responded to Wednesday’s report by arguing that it is unfair to pan his school for the high withdrawal rates. Medley pointed to a 28-percent withdrawal rate at Virtual Virginia, another school in its first year in Virginia.
And he noted similarly high numbers in Florida Virtual School, a long-running, state-run virtual program that experienced withdrawal rates exceeding 40 percent and 35 percent in two consecutive years.
“These figures seem to indicate that higher withdrawals are not a testament to a virtual school’s quality but rather the nature of the online model,” Medley said in his memo.
Additionally, Medley offered this explanation of the flap over testing:
First, NCVA was told, during August and in writing, that the BOG3 was not required of our school; so we did not plan to administer this assessment. When the Department informed us that this assessment was mandated, we worked closely with Dr. Howard and the Accountability Division to implement the expectation. NCVA informed parents, secured sites, and then offered the BOG3 from September 28 through October 1. Considering the circumstances above, we were quite pleased with the Department’s understanding and our strategies leading to a strong percentage of students taking the test.