Commentary: My Online School Just Got an ‘F’ on Our State Report Card. Why I’m Proud of My School and What We Do for Our Students

How many people get to land their dream job? Wake in the morning eager to get to work and end each day already strategizing the next? Achieve alignment of personal and professional vision and mission? That’s me.

I’m the leader of an online public school — that received a failing letter grade. So why am I so proud?

Eight years ago, I was charged with opening Indiana’s first full-time online school, serving students in grades K-12. Indiana Connections Academy remains both my passion and my profession and has provided a front-row seat for the good, the bad, and the ugly aspects of our ongoing debate about online schools.

INCA is measured by the same accountability system as any other public school in Indiana; on the 2016-17 report card issued by the Indiana Department of Education, we earned an F. We own that grade and work tirelessly to improve it. Accountability data don’t lie, but they don’t tell the whole story, either.

Case in point: mobility.

INCA, like many Indiana charter schools, serves a highly mobile student population. Over 30 percent of our high school students come to us off-cohort, meaning they are not on track to graduate on time. We welcome the challenge of serving these students, but it has major implications for our accountability scores and graduation rate.

Switching schools affects student performance. For example, research shows that there is often a short (one-to-three-year) decline in state test scores when a student enters a new learning environment. In any given year, more than half of INCA students are in their first or second year at the school, so this switching effect has a huge impact. This is not an excuse. It’s our reality.

Data show that if a student stays with INCA for three years or more, he or she will improve academically. We are moving the needle.

There are times when districts send students to us because they no longer know what to do to help them. We serve these students, even though INCA is not designed to be a credit recovery program or alternative school.

This impacts our school’s grade, but it isn’t fair — or good public policy — to blame a school that enrolls overage or credit-deficient students who don’t graduate with their cohort. Accountability should reflect student progression. For high schools, the key metric could be rate of credit accumulation while the student was enrolled, not the four-year graduation rate, which too often holds one school accountable for the failure of another.

Because changing schools is difficult for any student, perhaps measures of academic growth could exclude students who are in their first year in a school. These students will likely show a dip in achievement simply due to the switch, regardless of the quality of the school.

INCA’s class of 2019 is nearing 900 students, but only 247 were with us last school year. This means that three-quarters of our upcoming graduating class is new to us, and it stands to reason that those students have struggled in other academic settings and look to us as a last chance for success. Our school could be more accurately assessed if some of the above factors are considered.

Three years ago, we watched a high-achieving student return to her traditional school during her sophomore year after battling a drug addiction that changed the course of her life. Two years ago, we served a young woman with a terminal illness. Her “make a wish” was to stay in school. We helped her feel challenged and strong as she battled against cancer while working toward her goal of earning a diploma. Last year, we enrolled a young man whose “friends” had encouraged him to kill himself just months before. At INCA, he stayed focused on academics while getting the counseling he needed. After several months, his mother called to say she had “got her son back.”

We count these as successes. But where is the column on the state report card that indicates “lives saved” when measuring a school?

It’s time to change the conversation. Incredible things are happening in many online schools. I invite educators and policymakers to consider these suggestions for accountability to help us get better, not count us out. Help us figure out a way to measure success so it reflects what is happening in all schools, not just those that fit the traditional model.

Melissa Brown is executive director of Indiana Connections Academy.

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