Some Indiana parents, students, and educators praise online schools for allowing students to learn anywhere they want, but it’s exactly that flexibility that leads to one of the schools’ biggest struggles: ensuring students sit for state exams.
Virtual schools have historically struggled to get all of their students tested, compared to their brick-and-mortar peers. While 99 percent of traditional school students are tested throughout the state, in online schools, rates generally fall below the federally mandated 95 percent. In 2017, the most recent data available, most of Indiana’s online schools had test participation rates in the mid-80s and low 90s, with Indiana Virtual School testing just 35 percent of its students.
The schools say they struggle to get a higher number of students tested because they are scattered across the state and often have to drive long distances to testing sites. Also the parents of students at virtual charter schools are often more likely to want their children to “opt out” of tests for philosophical reasons, school leaders say.
Low turnout for state tests can have ramifications for schools: If more than 5 percent of a school’s students skip the ISTEP exams, schools lose points on their state A-F grades.
What’s more, if enough students don’t take tests, the state can’t get a full picture of how they are performing. This could pose a significant problem for virtual schools that already have trouble educating their students, some of whom struggle with bullying, medical issues, or come in far behind grade level. Every virtual school in Indiana received an F grade from the state in 2017.
And low test turnout might also be a piece of a larger problem with a school’s ability to create community and engage far-flung students.
In recent years, several virtual schools have made it a priority to get students to sit for state exams. One school says it spent $500,000 last year on testing, including hotel rooms for proctors near testing sites. Another has a “war room” where school leaders tackle testing issues, an approach that has led to a 15 percentage point jump in testing rates, the school says. We’ll learn if some of these efforts are paying off in the coming months, when the state is expected to release updated test participation rates along with A-F grades.
“You can probably imagine it’s a massive undertaking,” said Melissa Brown, head of schools for Indiana Connections Academy, which enrolls more than 4,600 students. “We try to remind people that they agreed to do this, that the test is just a look at their performance and it allows Indiana to evaluate our school … we try to be positive.”
Ensuring online students take standardized tests is a challenge nationally, as well. According to a 2018 report from the National Education Policy Center, low testing participation rates for virtual schools “allows their performance to go largely unchecked” because in many states a low enough rate lets schools duck state ratings. States should adjust their policies to close this loophole, the researchers said.
Test participation is one of the areas that state officials are examining as they consider further regulating virtual charter schools after Gov. Eric Holcomb called for reforming the schools in response to a 2017 Chalkbeat investigation. In Indiana, almost 12,000 students attend full-time virtual charter schools, or about 1 percent of public school students.
At a meeting last month of the Indiana State Board of Education committee charged with re-examining the virtual school rules, state officials presented test participation data from 2017.
Virtual charter schools say ensuring their students take state exams during two-week-long windows twice a year is expensive and time-consuming. At Connections, Brown said, the school spends about $500,000 on testing each year. Coordinating test days are expensive in part because staff must travel and stay overnight in hotels in order to procter.
Connections has 18 testing locations across the state, and no family should have to travel more than 50 miles to their assigned location. Students might test at a library, convention center, hotel, or community college — but the schools have to rent the space, furnish it with computers, and contract with vendors to ensure servers meet state security guidelines. They also spend time training teachers and staff on test security.
Because families often are traveling some distance, Brown said school leaders try to schedule siblings on the same day and condense testing as much as state rules allow so parents aren’t driving back and forth multiple times a week. That means students might have more testing in a single day, but test for fewer days overall than in a brick-and-mortar school. In 2017, 91 percent of Connections students were tested.
Like at traditional schools, students with special needs receive their required testing accommodations, such as longer test times or a specific environment. At its largest site, 30 students might be in one room at a time, but usually the group is much smaller, Brown said, especially in rural communities.
For students attending the Insight School, a full-time virtual charter school under the Hoosier Academies umbrella that caters to students far behind grade level, the testing process is similar. Elizabeth Lamey, head of school at Insight, said she oversees 12 sites across the state, and families shouldn’t have to travel more than 30 minutes to their assigned spot. If families cannot get there on their own, the school helps provide transportation. In 2017, 84 percent of Insight students were tested.
“It’s quite a process — we have a war room here at our administration building where it’s an all-hands-on-deck approach,” Lamey said.
School leaders find it challenging to sell the importance of state tests to virtual families, many of whom signed on explicitly to avoid what they see as restrictive school rules or intimidating social situations. Families at virtual schools are also more inclined, in Brown’s experience, to advocate for “opting out” of state tests intentionally on principle, not just for logistical reasons.
Last year, between 80 and 100 students opted out at Connections. Lamey said Insight has families who choose to opt out as well. In Indiana, there is no state-approved way for opting out of tests — state officials do not give schools any leeway in accountability for families who deliberately refuse to test.
“We do have a good chunk of families that want to own their child’s education, and that’s probably one of the reasons why they’re in our school, and so they’re more likely to (opt out),” Brown said. “Many of those children that are opting out are really high-performing students who just don’t believe in state testing.”
Brown and her staff, as well as those at Insight, communicate frequently with families leading up to tests to ensure they know where to go and when, and to remind them that testing was something they agreed to when they enrolled.
Not all students face testing challenges. Jeremiah Hitch, a 14-year-old freshman at Indiana Connections Academy, said he and his family haven’t had any big problems with getting to and from testing sites. Hitch lives in Evansville, and the testing site was at a convention center just a few miles from his home. He actually enjoys testing days, since he gets to see his teachers face-to-face.
Usually, Hitch said, he’s in a small room with few other students testing, in part because of his special education plan that requires that accomodation for his ADHD. Last year, he spent two days testing in each testing period. Compared to his previous traditional public school, this set-up is not nearly as distracting.
“Even during ISTEP (in the traditional school) you would still have something happening,” Hitch said. “It was a lot more quiet than usual, but it could still be very distracting. With ISTEP now, it’s a lot better.”
Both Connections and Insight expect their participation rates to be about the same or higher than last year, citing rates of about 90 percent and 98.5 percent respectively. Brown and Lamey said communication has been key — between teachers and parents, teachers and administrators, and teachers and students.
“That approach is something that has changed from the previous year,” Lamey said. “We’re undergoing a huge cultural shift at our school … we’re really trying to create an atmosphere, a culture of measurement. No one person holds the responsibility, it’s all of us.”
Indiana Virtual School did not return multiple requests for comment, but at a public meeting last month, school officials said they expected a 92 percent participation rate, up from 35 percent in 2017. Clark said they incentivized students to show up.
“We bought a lot of pizza,” he told the state board’s virtual school committee members.
A jump of that magnitude, in one year, would be a major achievement for the school, which has a history of testing issues. Until 2017, just a small fraction of students took tests each year. And last year, when the school’s rate was 35 percent, superintendent Percy Clark told Chalkbeat that many students still took tests on paper because the school couldn’t control outside computer security.
Even when Clark arrived at Indiana Virtual, he said they “were in hot water” in regards to taking ISTEP, though the school had far fewer students then compared to more than 3,300 today. Details about testing during Indiana Virtual’s early years came to light in a 2014 lawsuit brought against the school by then-superintendent Dave Stashevsky, who was suing for non-payment. At the time Stashevsky was also an educator in Daleville Public Schools, the small rural district that oversees Indiana Virtual School. Depositions in the case revealed that the school had tested very few students, if any — a result of disorganization at the school level and students being scattered across the state.
“Many of them didn’t make it that far to take the test,” a former teacher who taught at the school early on told Chalkbeat last year, requesting her name be withheld out of concerns about backlash from the school. “They left, or they didn’t complete the curriculum, or they kind of fell off the face of the Earth … (I) had no clue about when they took it, if they took it.”
Virtual schools’ struggles to engage families in state testing might also speak to the schools’ larger problem keeping students active and engaged in an online learning environment.
“Engagement” has become a buzzword in conversations Indiana policymakers have about improving online charter schools. If schools are more engaged with students and parents, and students are more engaged with their coursework, there’s more success, the theory goes.
Testing is one part of that relationship. Although, like brick-and-mortar schools, virtual schools can’t force students to take tests, the absence of a physical schooling environment can make it more even more difficult to make testing a priority.
But neither online schools nor policymakers have found a surefire way to ensure that those strong relationships are built. Stronger introductions to online learning when parents enroll their children could be a factor, as could policies some online school advocates praise that let schools expel students who fail to participate after a certain length of time.
Lamey said that a new state policy that lets online schools remove students who aren’t a good fit for that type of learning has been beneficial for the school and for families.
“We don’t want a child to stay in this situation if they’re not finding success,” Lamey said. “We feel like we have a strong culture of support here for our students, but if it’s not working we want them to have success in school.”
Here’s the breakdown of ISTEP participation rates for each virtual charter school in the state that tested students last year, per state data.
*Hoosier Academy Virtual closed this past June.