A new study on the effectiveness of online charter schools is  nothing short of damning — even though it was at least partly funded by a private pro-charter  foundation. It effectively says that the average student who attends might as well not enroll.

The study was done by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, known as CREDO, and located at Stanford University, in collaboration with the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington and Mathematica Policy Research. CREDO’s founding director, Margaret Raymond, served as project director. CREDO receives funding from the pro-charter Walton Family Foundation, which provided support for the new research.

CREDO has released a number of reports in recent years on the effectiveness of charters — using math and reading standardized test scores as the measure — which collectively conclude that some perform better than traditional public schools and some don’t. In its newest report, released this week, CREDO evaluated online K-12 charter schools. There are 17 states with online charter students: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin, as well as the District of Columbia.

The study sought to answer this question: “How did enrollment in an online charter school affect the academic growth of students?”  Academic growth, as mentioned before, is measured by standardized test scores for the purpose of this study, which evaluated scores from online charter students between 2008 and 2013 and compared them to students in traditional public schools (not brick-and-mortar charters). Here are some of the findings:

  • Students in online charters lost an average of about 72 days of learning in reading.
  • Students in online charters lost 180 days of learning in math during the course of a 180-day school year. Yes, you read that right. As my colleague Lyndsey Layton wrote in this story about the study, it’s as if the students did not attend school at all when it comes to math.
  • The average student in an online charter had lower reading scores than students in traditional schools everywhere except Wisconsin and Georgia, and had lower math scores everywhere except in Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Layton quoted Raymond as saying, “There’s still some possibility that there’s positive learning, but it’s so statistically significantly different from the average, it is literally as if the kid did not go to school for an entire year.”

The implications for the results, according to the study:

  1. Current online charter schools may be a good fit for some students, but the evidence suggests that online charters don’t serve very well the relatively atypical set of students that currently attend these schools, much less the general population. Academic benefits from online charter schools are currently the exception rather than the rule. Online charter schools provide a maximum of flexibility for students with schedules which do not fit the TPS [traditional public school] setting. This can be a benefit or a liability as flexibility requires discipline and maturity to maintain high standards. Not all families may be equipped to provide the direction needed for online schooling. Online charter schools should ensure their programs are a good fit for their potential students’ particular needs.
  2. Current oversight policies in place may not be sufficient for online charter schools. There is evidence that some online charter schools have been able to produce consistent academic benefits for students, but most online charter schools have not. The charter bargain has been “Flexibility for Accountability” and all charter schools must be held to that concept. Authorizers must step up to their responsibilities and demand online charter providers improve outcomes for students. Authorizers should hold a firm line with those schools which cannot meet their end of the charter bargain.
  3. States should examine the current progress of existing online programs before allowing expansion. Online schools have the potential to serve large numbers of students with practically no physical restraints on their expansion. As such, mechanisms which have typically played a role in regulating the growth of brick-and-mortar schools such as facility construction and limited potential student pools do not exert pressure on online schools. Without these natural constraints, online schools have the potential to expand more rapidly than traditional schools. This makes it critical for authorizers to ensure online charter schools demonstrate positive outcomes for students before being allowed to grow and that online charter schools grow at a pace which continues to lead to improved outcomes for their students.

It’s hard to overlook the language in these recommendations.

“The evidence suggests that online charters don’t serve very well the relatively atypical set of students that currently attend these schools, much less the general population.” Suggest?

“Current oversight policies in place may not be sufficient for online charter schools.” May?

Oversight policies aren’t sufficient for many brick-and-mortar charters, too, especially in Ohio, where a $1 billion charter sector has had so many problems it has become a national joke in some circles. Yet the largest online charter operator in Ohio, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), blasted the report in this Columbus Dispatch story, which says in part:

Ohio is expected to spend $554 million on online charter schools over the next two years. Most have struggled with state academic-performance measures; that includes ECOT, whose founder, William Lager, is among the top donors to Republican state legislators.

Gov. John Kasich is to soon sign House Bill 2, an overhaul of state charter-school laws. Among its many provisions, it ensures that the academic performance of online charter schools counts in evaluations of sponsors, and it requires e-schools to contact parents of struggling students and maintain accurate student-participation records.

It takes some chutzpah for a charter operator to attack a study funded by a pro-charter foundation and accuse the project director’s institution of seeing to dismantle online learning. But if there is anything some of these charters have, it’s chutzpah.