Comparing Online Schools to Traditional Schools—Can Students Succeed?
Parents who consider making the switch to online school often look at student achievement as a way to determine school quality. They ask, “Will my child do as well at an online school as he or she would at a traditional school?”
This may be a simple question, but the answer is not so straightforward.
Students attend online school for a whole host of reasons (more on this later). Because of this, the virtual school community is complex, and comparing the student body of an online school to that of most traditional schools can be like comparing apples to oranges. Measures like state assessment tests often don’t tell the whole story. Fortunately, new research on school effectiveness provides evidence that academic performance at Connections Academy®–supported schools is comparable or superior to academic performance at traditional schools serving similar types of students and at other virtual schools.
Measuring School Effectiveness
The effectiveness or efficacy of a school typically is measured through students’ academic performance, also called learner outcomes. While academic achievement is an important benchmark, straight comparisons of these numbers out of context can be misleading, particularly for online schools.
To provide the proper context and to better understand school and student performance, a study was conducted for Connections Academy, which is part of Pearson’s Online & Blended Learning group. Findings were audited by an outside group, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and went through a review by SRI International.
Researchers found that across Connections Academy schools, students most commonly identified one or more of the following reasons for choosing online school: seeking increased flexibility and choice, being academically advanced, struggling academically, experiencing health problems, or experiencing bullying.
The Connections Academy students are also significantly more mobile than their traditional school peers. Mobility refers to switching schools for reasons other than expected grade promotion (e.g., moving from middle to high school). Mobility is found at every school (traditional and online) and is a factor that has been shown to have a negative impact on math and reading achievement and to increase high school dropout rates.*
But being mobile is not necessarily a bad thing—in fact, switching schools is often exactly what a student needs to be successful. Often, dips in performance are only experienced initially while adjusting to any new school. Regardless, high mobility rates make the student body of online schools different from the student body of traditional brick-and-mortar schools.
Comparing Achievement with Traditional Schools
To make more of an “apples to apples” comparison between the achievement of online school students and their peers at local traditional schools, the study first compared a Connections Academy school to a noncharter brick-and-mortar school in the same state serving a similar population of students. The study factored in high mobility rates.
When these comparison schools were examined, the study showed that Connections Academy students can attain the same level of achievement as that offered by traditional brick-and-mortar schools serving similar students.
- There was no statistically significant difference in percentage of students who scored proficient in math and reading on state tests at Connections Academy schools and similar students at traditional schools.
Comparing to Other Online Schools
The study also evaluated Connections Academy in comparison to other virtual schools. Overall findings show that students may be better positioned in Connections Academy schools than other virtual schools.
- Connections Academy schools outperformed those virtual schools in reading on state assessments and performed as well in math.
Knowing that their children can achieve the same level of academic success in online school as their peers in traditional schools, families can feel confident making the school choice that best meets their students’ needs.
* Russell W. Rumberger, “Student Mobility: Causes, Consequences, and Solutions,” National Education Policy Center (2015), retrieved October 16, 2017, from http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/student-mobility.