In the decade since cyber charter schools first opened to Pennsylvania students, turning on a computer instead of hopping on the bus has just ... clicked.
The Internet became the classroom, partly or wholly, for more than a million students across the country last year. And in few places has it been more popular than in Pennsylvania, where the cyber charter school experiment has morphed into a movement, serving one of the highest registrations in the country, more than 23,000 full-time students.
But the state’s 11 virtual academies have mostly failed to meet state testing standards. Six of the schools in 2008-09—more-current results are being released in September—did not make adequate yearly progress because of academic performance in either math or reading on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment. A seventh cyber school did not make AYP because its graduation rate, at 55 percent, was below the state’s 80 percent threshold.
Five cyber charters are in some stage of corrective action, which could eventually necessitate state intervention if they don’t improve. Five cyber schools are making progress. And only one, 21st Century Cyber Charter School, made AYP four years in a row.
School districts, which have to turn over about 75 percent of the state aid they receive for each of the students enrolled in a cyber school, collectively lost $100 million to the online option in 2007. Some districts have countered by establishing their own cyber schools.
Registration at online schools in the United States grew 50 percent between 2005 and 2007, according to “Keeping Pace,” a report by a consortium of online education institutions that looked at charter programs and those that complement traditional schools.
While the setup is different at each school, students generally can meet in online classrooms at set times to absorb lessons in real time or at their own convenience through prepackaged lessons created by a third-party provider. Some meet their teachers in the beginning of the school year; others interact solely through e-mail.
Cyber charters “are really a hodgepodge of instructional models,” said Luis Huerta, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, who has studied cyber schools in Pennsylvania. He said he found few that use real-time instruction, and most purchase curriculum from a few big companies. Cyber charters must meet the state’s requirement of a 180-day school year, though cyber school students have flexibility in how they meet that. At least 75 percent of the teaching staffs must be certified.
Online education is usually something a parent turns to when the traditional method isn’t working, said Sharon Williams, the executive director of the Agora Cyber Charter, which is based in Wayne, Pa. That, she said, may explain why her school and others didn’t make adequate progress on the state assessment and are not meeting standards set under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
“We pick up kids in a desperate situation when a lot of folks failed them before,” Ms. Williams said.
At the 6th-through-12th-grade 21st Century Cyber Charter School—the best cyber charter school in the state, going by pssa results—about 30 percent of students came from districts that scored poorly on the state tests, said Jon Marsh, the chief executive officer of the Exton, Pa.-based school.
And test results can be hard to bolster when, for some students, cyber school is a short-lived educational experiment, Mr. Marsh said. At 21st Century, about one-third of the 750 students, he said, try online education for a year and leave.
About 77 percent of cyber school students graduated last year, lower than the state’s 89 percent graduation rate, according to PSSA reports. And the percentage of cyber school students who continue their education after graduation is lower than in traditional districts: Fewer than two-thirds in 2007, compared with 75 percent of traditional graduates.
A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 2010 edition of Education Week as Pa. Virtual Schools Struggle to Meet State Standards