Indiana paid for thousands of students who never earned credits at virtual charter schools

Last year nearly 2,000 students never earned a single credit across Indiana’s six virtual charter schools, according to new data — even though most of them were enrolled nearly all year and the schools received funding to educate them.

That works out to almost $10 million in state funding paid to the online schools for students who didn’t complete any work or got failing grades in their classes.

The majority of those students attended Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, two schools at risk of losing their charters amid allegations raised in February by their authorizer that they enrolled thousands of students who did not complete or sign up for courses, among other issues with test administration and serving students with disabilities.

But the course completion data, self-reported by schools and provided to Chalkbeat by the state education department, shows that other Indiana virtual charter schools also enroll hundreds of students who never earn credits. With online schools, it’s easy for students to sign up and fall through the cracks, possibly losing semesters of their education or not graduating.

“It is alarming that this many students are literally earning zero credits,” said Brandon Brown, CEO of The Mind Trust, a nonprofit that advocates for charter schools but has been critical of virtual schools. “It raises very serious questions, in particular around how these schools are being held accountable.”

Read: How lax oversight and rapid growth fueled dismal results for Indiana’s virtual charter schools

In Indiana, there is no penalty for schools if students don’t earn any credits, whether or not the state has paid their school, state officials said.

But high student turnover is likely a dramatic factor in virtual schools’ largely dismal academic results, including below-average graduation rates and test score passing rates, which have drawn intense scrutiny in recent years. Indiana lawmakers are debating new regulations for virtual schools, keying in better engagement efforts with students. Still, some critics have said lawmakers’ proposals this year are too watered down to rein in online schools’ poor performance.

Indiana Virtual School and its sister school stand out from other virtual charter schools with the bulk of students not earning any credits. Despite being enrolled at the schools for nearly the entire school year, 180 students at Indiana Virtual School and 1,135 students at Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy earned no credits in 2018, according to the data.

And while the number of online school students earning zero credits has decreased from 2017 to 2018, that figure still remains particularly high at Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy.

Officials from Indiana Virtual School and its sister school did not respond to requests for comment for this story. The course completion report is similar to a dataset that their oversight agency, Daleville public schools, used as part of its evaluation of the schools. The schools have disputed the allegations of no-show students, but they have not explained how they believe the information to be inaccurate and incomplete. They will have a hearing in June to give their defense to the allegations.

The schools have said they serve a student population where many students face instability at home and other challenges to learning, such as raising children, working to support their families, facing bullying, or other issues.

At the other virtual schools, nearly 300 students drew funding but didn’t record any credits, the data showed. Most of them spent less time at the schools, however, leaving after a semester or less.

Overall, of the 5,119 students who did earn credits at any virtual charter school in the state, more than 90 percent earned far fewer than an average full course load.

Charter schools and districts set their own rules, but a high schooler typically is expected to earn about 10 credits each year to stay on track to earn Indiana’s default 40-credit diploma.

At Indiana Virtual School, Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, and Insight School of Indiana, most students earned fewer than five credits. At Hoosier Academy Virtual, which closed last year, and Indiana Connections Academy, most students received between five and 10 credits.

Chandre Sanchez, in charge of Connections’ high school grades, said she’s never happy to see that students have failed, but the school isn’t just letting them slide by. She pointed to the school’s engagement policy — a requirement for all Indiana virtual schools after a law passed in 2017 — which sets out specific steps the schools must take when students are inactive.

“There are the kiddos that failed all the courses they attempted,” Sanchez said. “That’s not a pretty number — it makes me feel bad to look at it, but I can almost guarantee you that if we went into each (student’s files) you can see steps we took to try to re-engage them along the way.”

The school of about 4,700 K-12 students employs 12 counselors, as well as other social workers and staff members who track student progress and try to ensure they are participating.

If students are inactive for too long, though, they can be removed from the schools’ rolls — a controversial step that some critics think lets the schools off the hook when students aren’t achieving. But Elizabeth Lamey, head of schools for K12 Inc.’s Insight School, said there can be legitimate reasons for why students — particularly at virtual schools — don’t finish classes or receive low grades.

“Often they are financially responsible for their families, some have dependent children, some have disabled parents. Energy can sometimes be sapped, and focus is not always on education,” Lamey said.

Lamey said students at Insight, which is billed as a school for students who come in behind their peers or those who face other barriers to learning, have access to summer school, credit recovery, and counseling programs to try to help them keep up with their schooling.

“We don’t just push our students through,” Lamey said. “We do have expected rigor and accountability for our students, and they are not always able to step up to the plate and find success and pass our classes.”

Some researchers and charter school advocates recommend performance-based funding to mitigate the effects of student churn and ensure public money is used effectively. Virtual schools would have to show results in order to receive full funding, usually getting an initial portion of the funding to help support any overhead, with the rest coming after students have completed courses.

But Indiana schools are funded based on how many students are enrolled on one “count day” in the fall. Any transfers in or out do not affect a school’s bottom line during the remainder of that year. So even though more than 7,000 Indiana Virtual School students were reported as earning zero credits in 2018, only 1,766 of them were funded, and 260 were enrolled for most of the year, according to the data.

Student churn affects many schools, especially urban ones, but because virtual schools are easier to enroll in, they often see high rates of student turnover and can feel the effects more dramatically.

When so many students aren’t even logging credits, let alone passing state tests or graduating, Brandon Brown, with The Mind Trust, wondered if the state is doing enough to ensure schools take responsibility for their poor performance.

“If students aren’t reaching proficiency on state tests and if they aren’t graduating on time, and if they aren’t attaining credits at the rate that you would expect, it’s hard to see the return the state is actually receiving on their investment,” Brown said. “I’m running out of metrics at this point, and it’s really getting to be hard to make a case that virtual schools are actually serving kids well.”