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It’s always an away game for online school students

In my previous piece, I detailed many of the testing problems states have faced this year.  Since then, things have only gotten worse.  Controversy erupted in Texas as issues with testing continued to mount causing educators to express a total loss of faith in the STAAR standardized testing system.  Tennessee’s much-hyped TNReady test was scrapped outright after the emergency switch from the online to paper-based test was botched so badly that the State Department of Education was forced to cancel Part II of testing.

[Quick digression:  Perhaps these numerous problems and increased aversion to state testing from parents and teachers are part of what is fueling new debate around standardized tests and accountability, even among education reformers. Has the pendulum of test-based accountability and, in the words of Paul Peterson, the “regulatory approach to school reform,” swung too far?]

I noted how state testing delays, last-minute changes, cancellations, and other difficulties negatively impact all schools but have a much greater impact on online schools. I speculated that many, if not most, people have no idea the massive amount of time, resources, planning, logistics, and manpower it takes for online schools to fulfill state-mandated testing requirements, which is unlike anything traditional schools or district face.

I am now absolutely convinced that is the case.

To recap: statewide online schools don’t have school buildings, yet state tests must be administered in buildings. So online schools must secure numerous testing sites across the state and move thousands of students in and out for days and weeks of continuous testing. This is a monumental task, requiring months of planning and preparation.  During testing, teachers stop all instructional duties to physically be at the sites to proctor tests. Parents drive their children to and from the sites every day until all testing is completed. Some stay at hotels.  Others arrange alternative transportation, child care, and even take vacation or leave time from work. They literally have to plan their lives around state testing. Unlike most families, online school parents can’t simply put their children on a bus and send them to the school building they attend every day.

Let me provide examples from two statewide online charter schools:

Ohio Virtual Academy just completed state testing and administered 17, 000 tests to over 7,000 students over a four-week period.  They rented 55 sites across the state outfitted with over 4000 computers.  They had to ensure a testing site was within 50 miles of every student.  They did it, and Ohio Virtual Academy had 97% overall test participation, exceeding the requirement.

Then there is Georgia Cyber Academy.  This year, the school tested over 9,000 students in 49 separate facilities over a period of two weeks. During GCA’s first week of testing, they tested 6,500 students in grades 3-8 each day for five consecutive days. The school estimates these families traveled a total of over 580,000 miles back and forth to test sites in just the first week.

Are online school students affected by having to travel to take state tests outside their familiar learning environment?  Does it impact results? To my knowledge, this has never been analyzed, and state accountability systems certainly haven’t factored it in.  Regardless, it’s safe to say that it is definitively more challenging for online school students to take state tests than their peers in traditional schools.  I asked Georgia Cyber Academy Head of School, Matt Arkin, about this.  Here is what he wrote:

In most cases our students test in a building they’ve never been to, in a room they’ve never been in, with adults they’ve never met, and students they’ve never seen. It’s a huge difference from what traditional schools do, which is to try to make the experience as normal and “routine” as possible.

When problems occur, it only makes thing more difficult.  Last year, due to technical issues with Georgia’s new testing platform, a number of our students with disabilities were unable to take their tests for the first 4 days of the testing window. When testing failed, they went home only to return and try again the next day – some traveling back and forth to testing sites over a period of nine days in order to successfully complete state testing.

Sports analysts always talk about home field advantage.  There are effects, physically and mentally, on athletes when they have travel and perform in a different venue away from home. Whatever the sport, there is widespread agreement that it is better for athletes to be at home than on the road.

Unfortunately for online school students they don’t have a choice. For them the most important and highest-stakes test of the year, at least for purposes of state accountability, is always an away game.

About The Author

Jeff Kwitowski

Jeff Kwitowski is Senior Vice President of Public Affairs & Policy Communications at K12 Inc. Since 2003, he has been a central part of K12’s public affairs team with a special focus on public policy and advocacy. Additionally, he has supported K12’s state and federal government affairs efforts, working with policymakers and education leaders to develop and advocate for policy frameworks that expand school options, digital learning, and parent choice in education. He served as a member of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning’s Issues and Advocacy Committee, and participated in the national Digital Learning Now Initiative in developing policy frameworks and goals for advancement of digital learning. Prior to K12, he served as communications director and advisor to former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett and former U.S. Congressman and HUD Secretary Jack Kemp at Empower America, a Washington, DC-based public policy organization. He graduated with a B.A. in Political Science and History from St. John Fisher College in Rochester, NY.

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