State audit finds lower completion rates, more dropouts among full-time online students

James Nobles
Legislative Auditor James Nobles, left, speaks with State Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, before a meeting of the Legislative Audit Commission, Sept. 19, 2011. Nobles presented his office's new report on online education in Minnesota.
MPR photo/Tom Weber

A new audit released Monday from the Office of Legislative Auditor finds enrollment in online courses is booming. But it also raises concerns about how well those students perform in that setting, and also how the state regulates the entire venture.

Last year, about 20,000 Minnesota students in kindergarten through 12th grade took at least one online course. Those include traditional school students who took one or two courses online; home-schooled students who took supplemental courses; and students enrolled full time in one of 24 state-approved online schools.

That's still less than 3 percent of all Minnesota school children, but it's four times the number of students who took at least one online course just five years ago.

Legislative Auditor James Nobles says that growth prompted lawmakers to want to know more about online learning, and his office released those findings Monday.

"There's a lot of good here and a lot of benefits and a lot of options, but there are also concerns," he said.

Nobles focused a large part of his report on the roughly 8,000 students who are in an online school full time.

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He found those students are less likely to complete courses they've started, and more likely to drop out of school altogether than students in traditional classroom settings. Two years ago, 25 percent of 12th graders in online schools dropped out, compared to just 3 percent in traditional schools.

Those students lagged behind their traditional peers when it came to the state's standardized math tests, although they generally kept pace in reading.

In addition to performance, Nobles presented several recommendations for how the state could redefine its role in online education.

"I think we need to think through the role of the state, in terms of facilitating and regulating," said Nobles.

For one, he said the state Department of Education doesn't have enough staff working with online schools, and it's not reviewing applications for new online schools quickly enough. State officials agree with the staffing point, noting recent budget cuts to the department.

They also acknowledged they fell behind on applications earlier this year ,but have made improvements.

Where Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius took issue was on the recommendation that lawmakers enact stricter deadlines for her department to act on those applications.

She says that conflicts with her goal to work in a more user-friendly way with schools to bolster applications, instead of rejecting them outright.

"Sometimes some applications can be reviewed more quickly, because they have all the components within them and they are high-quality applications," she said. "But when we get applications that need more technical assistance and more clarification around their assurances, we need to work with them more strategically and sometimes that takes a little bit more time."

Monday's hearing won't be the last on online schools. Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, was among those promising more hearings when lawmakers reconvene next year. Erickson chairs the House Education Reform committee.

"It's the wave of the future, and so we have to determine ... quality, but at the same time flexibility and some autonomy," said Erickson.

Online education gained attention in recent months when the state moved to close an online charter school called BlueSky Charter of West St. Paul. The state maintains the school doesn't use curriculum that meets state standards and has graduated students who don't deserve a diploma. The school denies those claims.

The BlueSky charter was not a focus of the audit. Instead, it will be the subject of a court hearing next week.