Almost 10,000 students went to this online school last year. 851 stayed the whole time

Nearly 10,000 students attended Indiana Virtual School at some point last school year, but about 91 percent didn’t stay for an entire year, new data released by Daleville public schools show.

Of the 851 students who made it a full year, almost 60 percent didn’t earn a single credit — and the district claims some students weren’t signed up for classes at all.

This churn of students and lack of credits were among the red flags that prompted Daleville’s school board to vote earlier this week to begin the process of revoking the charters for Indiana Virtual School and its sister school, Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy.

The virtual schools’ superintendent has called Daleville’s data inaccurate and says students were taking courses, but he has not said what the errors are specifically. School leaders have said in the past that, due to the students that they attract for their online-only programs, their enrollment fluctuates wildly throughout the school year.

“Every student at Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy is enrolled in classes,” Clark said in a emailed statement Wednesday night in response to earlier questions about enrollment and course assignments.

But district leaders are standing by the analysis, arguing that the data they used came directly from reports submitted to the state by the virtual schools. A spokesman for the state education department confirmed that schools have the same access to the state’s data reporting system as charter school authorizers such as Daleville do, and that the virtual charter schools indicated their data was accurate when they reported it to the state. A spokeswoman for the virtual school did not immediately return requests for comment on the district’s explanation.

The district says it used data from several state reports on attendance, student counts that drive funding, and course completion to arrive at the conclusion that the virtual schools were enrolling thousands of students that the state paid them for, but who weren’t actually taking classes or earned next to no credits.

In 2018, the state paid Indiana Virtual School $20 million based on an enrollment of 3,376 students. But a deeper look at the numbers, Daleville said, suggests the school was paid for students who didn’t end up learning there. For example, the district said the data shows that 71 students that Indiana Virtual School reported as having attended all year weren’t included in datasets showing what classes students attempted or completed. The district determined this meant they didn’t take any classes.

“It is curious for students to attend all year and yet be absent from all course completion reports,” the statement from Daleville said.

The pattern was also seen the year before at Indiana Virtual School, when 499 full-year students were not accounted for in course completion reports. That year, the school reported an enrollment of 2,947 for funding purposes. A similar situation was discovered at Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, where 1,563 students who were counted as attending the whole year weren’t assigned courses during second semester.

The numbers revealed this week are in line with arguments that virtual charter schools and their authorizers have made about their enrollment being volatile. They say that as public schools, they must accept any student who enrolls, even if that’s midway through the year. If that student drops out or performs poorly on state tests, online schools shoulder that as well, they say. Because of these circumstances, they have asked for lower standards from the state in terms of accountability, testing, and graduation rate metrics.

Critics, though, maintain that virtual schools’ face many of the same problems as traditional schools and shouldn’t be cut extra slack. It’s not uncommon to have high student mobility in urban public schools, which also can’t turn away students.

Generally, students at virtual charter schools perform poorly on state exams, and many don’t graduate on time. As a result, the schools have mostly received D and F grades from the state in recent years. When a school gets four F grades in a row, the state can intervene, and one consequence could be closure.

Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy have until March 19 to respond to Daleville’s allegations in writing. A hearing for the virtual schools to contest revocation is set for April 1.