Published Online: November 26, 2013

Audit Finds Standards Lax at N.C. Virtual School

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The N.C. Virtual Public School had lax standards when it came to enrolling, tracking and reporting the thousands of students it educated in online classes, a state audit has found.

In a report by State Auditor Beth Wood on Monday, the school was found to have overreported students in some areas and underreported in others, while giving some teachers improper access to the registration system. The school didn't verify its enrollment figures by seeking independent reviews.

The audit also found that leaders at the school inconsistently conducted performance reviews of its teachers, including one instructional leader who performed her own evaluation and two other teachers who were not reviewed at all. One teacher who received an unsatisfactory review did not provide required teacher feedback on how to improve.

Accurately tracking enrollment is important, the audit said, because teacher pay is based on the number of students who complete online courses.

The audit looked at the school's operations from July 1, 2012, to Jan. 31, 2013. During that period, 24,000 middle and high school students took online classes in the program, and teacher pay for those courses totaled $6.6 million.

The virtual school did not properly monitor access to the registration system. Tests found that four teachers had the ability to get into the system, the audit said, potentially creating a situation where someone could inflate enrollment numbers to increase pay.

Though there were problems with the way students were counted in enrollment data, the audit did not find any instances of overpayment to teachers in a test sample of 60 payments.

The school's annual report to the State Board of Education contained errors, overreporting enrollment in traditional schools by 1,726 students and leaving out enrollment in 22 charters schools, thus undercounting students by 873, the audit said.

The state Department of Public Instruction, which oversees the virtual school, said those errors were typos and that the annual report is used only for information purposes.

The department said it had instituted a number of processes to correct the deficiencies found by the auditors. Among the changes: better screening to make sure instructors don't have access to the registration system; new, independent reviews of enrollment data and pay calculations; and a better system for documenting teacher evaluations.

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"The Department of Public Instruction and North Carolina Virtual Public School feel that appropriate action has been taken to address the findings in the audit report," wrote State Superintendent June Atkinson. "Procedures have been implemented to properly mitigate all risks noted."

Wood's report said the auditors did not evaluate the information in DPI's response, and "accordingly, we express no opinion on it."

The virtual school was established in 2005 and began offering courses in 2007. The idea was to give students access to subjects not offered in their school districts. It was seen as a particular advantage to rural students whose schools did not offer a wide variety of classes.

In 2011-12, more than 49,000 students from 115 school districts and 36 charter schools took the online classes. More than 100 courses are offered through the virtual school.

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