First Person

Voices: Ensuring quality online education

Donnell-Kay Foundation fellow Yilan Shen says online education is a key pathway for some students but hard conversations are needed about how to ensure the quality of online programs.

<em>EdNews</em> file photo

Online learning has been around for nearly two decades in Colorado, and it is due time to ensure that this is a high quality education option.

The knowledge and experience we have gained over the years can now inform next steps to improve the quality of this education option. In the last year, a series of studies have built a better understanding of online learning in the state:

Full-time online learning is the most prominent form of online learning in Colorado. These schools offer a different education option for students who have struggled in traditional settings, have unique needs that demand flexibility, or whose parents choose it as a substitute or supplement to homeschooling. The demand for online schools is strong, with enrollment increasing from about 3,000 in 2003 to over 16,000 today.

Despite this dramatically increased demand, outcomes for full-time online schools still lag behind their brick and mortar counterparts. The graduation rate for online schools is consistently below that of non-online schools and online elementary students perform worse on reading and math assessments than their non-online counterparts. Most of the full-time online schools in the state are classified as turnaround or priority improvement (the two lowest classifications), and despite increasing demand, they face closure if they do not improve their academic outcomes.

However, simply closing these schools would be a disservice for those students who thrive academically in online settings and whose families find this option to be the most suitable for their needs. For example, due to the outpouring of support from the school’s parents and students, the Adams 12 Five Star board recently extended the Colorado Virtual Academy charter contract for one more year, despite the ongoing performance and management problems. The state and the individual schools owe it to the students to ensure a quality education – and many of the students are not receiving it.

Policy levers recommended in the recent report by the Colorado Children’s Campaign, such as expanding statewide broadband access, creating better data systems, implementing a multiple student count date system and ensuring funding transparency and flexibility, can drive the conversation around next steps for online learning. At the same time, there needs to be an earnest and straightforward conversation about the quality and outcomes of full-time online learning. Even if online schools provide a last resort for students who have exhausted other options in trying to graduate high school, what good is the diploma if the education is not adequately preparing them to succeed in college or careers and beyond?

Tracking quality for online education does present unique challenges, but this should not prevent us from addressing the issue. As a part of the conversation to address quality of online education, we must examine difficult questions like the following:

  • How can online schools provide equitable access while also ensuring they are targeting those students most likely to succeed in this setting?
  • How can online schools utilize their flexible environments to tailor specific interventions to their students with varying needs?
  • How can the state or schools provide more useful transparent performance data to parents?
  • What professional development needs to be offered to build the capacity of full-time online school teachers and principals to better meet the needs of the students their schools are attracting?

Since parents and students often choose schools for reasons other than academic achievement, they are the responsibilities of the state, authorizers, and school operators to ensure that the programs they offer will be a better option for the students that seek them out. Online schools cannot continue to enroll students who have already struggled at multiple schools and expect them to succeed just because it is a novel setting. The time to ask the hard questions about improving full-time online learning is now.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of the New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention. 

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.