By Terrie Morgan-Besecker firstname.lastname@example.orgLaw & Order Reporter Every school district in Luzerne County reached a key state benchmark that measures school performance in the 2009-10 school year, but the news was not nearly as good for the 11 charter cyber schools operating in Pennsylvania.
Just four of the 11 schools met the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) standard set by the state, which measures the performance of school districts and individual schools based on graduation rates, attendance and standardized tests scores across grade levels. The news hasn’t been much better for many of the cyber schools in the previous four school years either. Three cyber schools – Agora Cyber, PA Learners Online Regional Cyber and Pennsylvania Distance Learning - have not made the AYP for five years straight. Another three – Achievement House, Pennsylvania Leadership and Commonwealth Connections Academy – have made the AYP only once in five years. Most local school districts, meanwhile, have consistently reached the standard. The issue is among several concerns local superintendents have raised about the cyber schools. The schools, which teach students via computer set up in their homes, draw hundreds of Luzerne County students from their home districts each year. Since 2001, the number of Luzerne County students attending cyber schools has skyrocketed from just 63 to 700 in the 2010-2011 school year. That’s come at a cost. Districts are required to pay cyber schools a fee equal to roughly 75 percent of the district’s per pupil cost to educate a student. The county’s 11 school districts shelled out a combined total of $6.5 million to cyber schools in 2011. Some superintendents, including Wilkes-Barre Area’s Jeff Namey, have questioned what they’re getting for their money. The poor performance of many of the cyber schools in the AYP has further fueled their concerns. “Certainly that’s a concern,” Namey said. “If Wilkes-Barre Area, as a whole, did not make AYP five years in a row, we’d be held to task. People would be asking why, what’s going on, what are you not doing that you should be doing?” While acknowledging that AYP performance is a concern, officials with several cyber schools said the measure does not tell the whole story. There are several significant factors that put cyber schools at a disadvantage, they said, including a disparity in how cyber schools and school districts are measured that makes it much more difficult for a cyber school to meet the AYP. Joe Lyons, communications director for the Pennsylvania Virtual cyber charter school, said a school district as a whole can make the AYP, even if some of its individual schools, such as an elementary or middle school, did not. That’s because the districts are separated out by grade level groups – elementary, middle school and high school. As long as one subgroup makes the AYP, the district as a whole does, too. With cyber schools, all their grades are considered as a single entity, or school. That means if the cyber fails to meet one standard in any single grade, it will not make AYP. “The rules are different for cyber schools than school districts. It’s not an apples to apples comparison,” he said. Pennsylvania Virtual has made the AYP in two of the past fives years, including the 2009-10 school year. Had it been measured by the same standard as school districts, it would have made it each of those years, Lyons said. Different challenges Sharon Williams, executive director of Agora, said cyber schools also face other challenges than a typical school because their students come from all across the state. Williams said at Agora, 60 percent of the students it teaches each year are new to the school. The majority of those are students were not performing well in their home district. It’s difficult for the school to turn those students around in a single year. “The AYP does not consider a student’s proficiency when they enter the school,” she said. “We do as much as we can to close those gaps, but it’s very difficult, when 60 percent of our kids are new, to make progress that will show up in AYP scores.” She believes a fairer, and more accurate, measurement of school performance comes from the Pennsylvania Value-Added Assessment System (PVAS). That system measures a student’s performance on standardized tests, coupled with their progress, or growth, year to year. Williams and Lyons said that standard is more meaningful because it shows how successful, or unsuccessful, a school is at helping individual students advance, as opposed to strictly looking at how they scored on a standardized test in a given year. “That’s what you want to see,” Lyons said. “A standard test is a snapshot in time . . . You want to look at growth over time. Did they make up that gap? That’s important data.” Williams said she remains mindful of the importance of the AYP scores, but hopes the state will begin relying more on PVAS. Agora scored well the latest PVAS evaluation, Williams said, which showed the school was effective in helping students achieve growth. “Although we are just as upset when we don’t make AYP as anyone else, we are also celebrating the growth of our students year over year,” she said. “The longer they stay, the better they do.”