How to Uphold Online Learning Standards to Quality Education

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As the number of K-12 students who take online courses continues to grow -- more than two million are currently enrolled -- the need to uphold rigorous standards to online education is becoming that much more important. And with criticism leveled at many online schools for poor academic performance, the online education model needs to create a more accurate way to assess the quality of the dozens of programs in the space.

That’s the premise of a new report published by the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) entitled “Measuring Quality from Inputs to Outcomes,” which focuses on laying out a new system of metrics. The report advocates for a new assessment model that focuses on competency-based evaluations that measure a student’s learning trajectory – including proficiency and growth – rather than what the organization call “inputs,” as traditional schools do. Inputs include things like teacher licensing and curriculum and textbook standards. Those inputs are not tied to student achievement, the authors argue, so they fail as metrics for assessing whether an online education program is doing its job.

Instead, the report favors an approach focused on “outcomes.” Programs should be judged on student proficiency, as well as individual student growth over time. Most states have an annual end of year assessment to measure proficiency. But those tests only measure student achievement at one point in time – it’s just one snapshot that misses the bigger picture of that student’s learning trajectory.

Susan Patrick, President and CEO of iNACOL and the report’s lead author, contends that current assessments for online schools do a disservice to students who were lagging but have caught up, as well as those who have surpassed the learning standards of their current grade. At a minimum, she says, students should be assessed at the beginning and end of the year to plot their growth. And ideally, she’d like to see competency-based evaluations that are not tied to a set period of time, or "seat time."

“The conclusion was that if we had competency-based systems in place it would make these assessments much easier,” said Patrick. If the assessment measured a student’s grasp of a specific concept, there would be more data points to draw a map of that child’s achievement and knowledge gaps.



Patrick’s critiques of quality assessment are particularly important for online learning programs that have been criticized for having questionable results. Patrick thinks the field needs to be self-critical, holding up the good examples, while calling out the bad ones.

What's more, online learning has the power to provide detailed data on student learning and comprehension, which makes it ripe to try out a different type of quality assessment. So far, online learning has been most successful for kids with extenuating circumstances that make traditional school difficult. That means that under an “input” model of evaluation online learning programs often fair worse because kids come in late or behind. Without any measurement of their growth over time their progress can be overlooked.

“Fulfilling the potential of a student-centric, competency-based system will require that the field of online and blended learning and the policy environment in which it operates evolve to demand models that are not only different, but more effective, than traditional schooling,” the report states. Without a system of outcome-based assessment, there could be two negative consequences for the future of online learning: technology could be widely adopted, but not transform the way a classroom operates; or on the other hand, without solid evidence of quality education, school districts could shy away from online or tech-based learning that might have the potential to help students.


As part of quality assurance, Patrick says that end-of-year tests for online education should come from companies that are different than those that created the curriculum. Online curriculum companies have a vested interest in showing high student performance at the end of a course, she said. Funding for K-12 follows the student, and each company competes for those dollars. Without external assessment there is no way to know whether the “A” from one course carries the same weight than an “A” from an outside, objective assessment.

Patrick compared it to the Advanced Placement test. She says this element is crucial to “get a handle on who are the quality providers.” She wants to make those programs the most easily accessible so that kids who choose an online education are exposed to the best ones.

She also hopes that if states adopt iNACOL’s new set of metrics and are successful, that this type of evaluation could spread to blended-learning and traditional classrooms.