Aug. 15, 2017

Cyber charters don’t get passing grades but parents choose them for other reasons

By Stephanie Hacke

Aug. 15, 2017

Cyber charters don’t get passing grades but parents choose them for other reasons

By Stephanie Hacke

Megan Naughton's sons Jayden, 12 (left), and Duncan, 10, attend Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, and during the school year, this room in their Ross Township home is often their classroom. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Part of the series

The Charter Effect

Traditionally, the 20th anniversary is celebrated with china but we are marking the 20th anniversary of Pennsylvania’s charter school law with transparency and depth. While other local media outlets have reported on the sweeping change charter school choice has had on students and traditional school districts, our series will expand on that by teasing out the root of the tension between charters and other public schools: money and what appears to be differing standards of accountability.

This series will expose and explain the data and records behind the charter schools operating in Allegheny County.

Pennsylvania ranks among the top three states in the country that enroll the most students in cyber charter schools.

We're talking 33,000 to 34,000 students. That's like the entire student population at the University of Pittsburgh.

Yet none of these charter schools has reached a performance benchmark of 70 percent on the School Performance Profile [SPP] — a statewide grading system for Pennsylvania’s public schools established four years ago. The SPPs rank schools on numerous factors including academic achievement, growth and attendance.

The 21st Century Cyber Charter School earned the highest SPP score of any cyber charter school in 2015-16 with a score of 62.1 out of a possible 100 percent (with the possibility of seven extra credit points). Agora Cyber Charter School rated the worst among cyber charters with 37.7 on the SPP.

Parents who talked to PublicSource said the low academic scores on the statewide tests don’t bother them. They say their children are learning and they care more about their individual performance. The schools also provide them with flexibility they couldn’t find in traditional public schools.

“This was the perfect solution for our situation,” said Amy Croft, 43, of Altoona, who enrolled her son, Cougar, in the Central Pennsylvania Digital Learning Foundation cyber charter two years ago after public school became a danger for the now 17-year-old.

Diagnosed with intractable epilepsy, Cougar was having seizures nearly every day. There was a fear the seizures would cause him to fall in the hallways or classrooms.

In finding a new school for Cougar, Croft wasn’t focused on statewide test scores. She searched for a school that allowed Cougar to work at his own pace and adjust his schedule on days he experienced health issues.

"Parents come to us because something is not working.”

School leaders in Pennsylvania attribute the low scores to a high rate of student turnover and students entering their programs who are already behind in reading or math.

It’s an issue they say they’re constantly working to fix, some by evaluating their teaching and even making sure parents remember to give kids a good breakfast before tests.

Debbie Kress (center), an academic intervention specialist for grades K-5 at Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, looks at books used in a summer reading program with the school's CEO Brian Hayden. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

“It’s something that is a challenge for us that we work every day, every school year to try and make sure those scores improve,” said Brian Hayden, CEO of Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, the state’s oldest and largest cyber charter school, which enrolled nearly 10,900 students in 2016-17.

Why they’re so low

The big, bold number on the state’s SPP website doesn’t tell the full story, cyber charter school leaders said. It’s meant to give parents and residents a glimpse into how every school in the state is performing academically. But most people, the cyber school officials say, don’t even know what it means or don’t care.

The highest score among cyber charter schools on the SPP website is for Education Plus Academy. The school, scored a 67.9 on the statewide measurement in the 2015-16 school year. However, the school closed in December of that year, citing financial reasons, before testing occurred. Casey Smith, acting communications director with the Pennsylvania Department of Education, said the school’s score is not valid and will be removed from the website.

Much of the score is based on student scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment [PSSA] and Keystone Exam.

State scores for cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania

The Pennsylvania Department of Education issues School Performance Profiles annually to assess academic performance and growth of students. They are based on a scale of 100 points, with the possibility of seven extra credit points. The state considers 70 to be a ‘passing grade.’

School 2012-13 SPP 2013-14 SPP 2014-15 SPP 2015-16 SPP Third-grade reading proficiency, 2015-16 Graduation rate, 2015-16
21st Century Cyber 66.5 66 69.2 62.1 n/a 66.67
Achievement House 39.7 37.5 44.8 54.5 n/a 36.33
ACT Academy Cyber 30.6 28.9 36.1 40 n/a 24.56
Agora Cyber 48.3 42.4 46.4 37.7 25.97 46.24
ASPIRA Bilingual Cyber 29 39 38.4 40.4 Insufficient sample 68
Central PA Digital Learning Foundation 31.7 48.8 39.3 47.6 Insufficient sample 26.92
Commonwealth Charter Academy 54.6 52.2 48.8 47.5 41.67 73.18
Esperanza Cyber 32.7 47.7 31.7 51.4 Insufficient sample Insufficient sample
Pennsylvania Cyber 59.4 55.5 65.3 52.5 37.6 58.11
Pennsylvania Distance Learning 54.7 50.9 49.2 54.1 19.05 34.29
Pennsylvania Leadership 64.7 59.3 54.7 57.4 41.1 69.71
Pennsylvania Virtual 67.9 63.4 64.6 49.8 52.13 77.39
Reach Cyber n/a n/a n/a In first year—no data In first year—no data In first year—no data
SusQ-Cyber 46.4 42.4 45.5 49.5 n/a 25

Source: Pennsylvania Department of Education School Performance Profiles
Note: School Performance Profiles based on the 2016-17 standardized testing and other data are slated to be released this fall. In 2014-15, the PSSA tests given to students in grades 3-8 were aligned with the Pennsylvania Core curriculum, which caused a drop in scores in several schools throughout the state.

One of the main causes for the poor performance by cyber charter schools on state testing is the high transient rate, where new students join every day, leaders said. They say parents often are looking for a solution to a problem and start at cyber charter schools midway through their child’s education. For some it works; for others it doesn’t. Some use it as a temporary fix.

Ana Meyers, executive director of the PA Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said if you separate the scores of students who have been enrolled in cyber charter schools for three years, “the improvement over time for those students is significant.” She’s basing this on an analysis of student growth indicators in the SPPs.

The cyber charter school leaders would rather the state and parents measure the success of their schools by looking purely at growth.

“Our focus is on the academic growth of the individual child. I believe our scores indicate that our school is very successful at academically growing a child,” said Patricia R. Rossetti, CEO of Pennsylvania Distance Learning Charter, whose school had a score of 54.1 on the SPPs in 2015-16. The school scored higher on the portions that measure growth in students from one year to the next in math, English language arts and science.

Angela Berger, a French and Spanish teacher with PA Distance Learning Charter School, demonstrates the live-learning platform she uses to teach students online. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

At Commonwealth Charter Academy, between 30 and 40 percent of the school’s population (9,200 students in 2016-17) are new each year, CEO Maurice Flurie said.

The school, which had a 47.5 on the SPP in 2015-16, contracted with a third party, i-Ready, to test its students in order to learn more about their scores. The testing found that 70 percent of new students at the school are behind by one grade level and 50 percent are two full years behind academically, Flurie said.

“That’s who we got. They’re coming to us,” he said. “A child is not born and a parent looked at them as a 3-year-old and said, ‘I can’t wait until they get to kindergarten and I can send them to a cyber school.’”

Each student has a different reason they enroll in cyber schools, leaders say.

“Parents come to us because something is not working,” Flurie said. “They need another choice for their child that they think is a better choice for their child and their family, and I think these academic numbers are proving that. But what we also discovered is the longer you stay with us, the closer you get to grade level. So, we’re moving kids. But you don’t make up two years in deficiency in a year. It takes time.”

Agora Cyber Charter School, the cyber with the lowest recent score, faces a similar situation, CEO Michael Conti said.

“With respect to academic performance, I own the scores that Agora has. I’m not the least bit happy with it,” Conti said.

It takes some time, though, to get students caught up and often there isn’t enough time before they’re tested.

“I believe our scores indicate that our school is very successful at academically growing a child.”

At PA Cyber last year, two students started their first day at the school by taking the standardized tests, Hayden said.

Most of the students at PA Cyber don’t go to the school from kindergarten through 12th grade. Parents often cite bullying or anxiety at their old school as a cause for moving to cyber.

It goes the other way around, too. Students don’t always stay the full year.

Between the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years, incidences of students withdrawing for truancy from PA Cyber were up by 38 percent, with 641 students withdrawing in 2015-16 after being truant for 10 consecutive days and 886 leaving for the same reason in 2016-17. Another kind of withdrawal increased significantly more. Some students withdraw when the educational team along with the student and their family decide the school isn’t the right place for the student. Those types of withdrawals spiked 114 percent in the same period, from 261 in 2015-16 to 558 in 2016-17.

“So we’re not just purposefully keeping students here to bill them. This isn’t the place for everybody,” Hayden said. Students do tend to jump between cyber charter schools to find the right fit.

Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School student Jayden Naughton looks at the website Study Island, which he uses to complete homework and study for tests. The 12-year-old, who will begin 7th grade this coming school year, said he likes being able to do schoolwork at his own pace. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Another concern for cyber charter school leaders is the administration of the state tests.

While students in traditional brick-and-mortar schools take the tests at their own desks, students at cyber charter schools have to visit outside testing locations in anywhere from hotel banquet rooms to libraries.

PA Cyber hosted 33 testing sites in 2016-17 for its 10,900 students in all 67 Pennsylvania counties. Families traveled up to an hour for children to sit for half a day and take tests.

Testing in an unfamiliar environment can make some students doubly nervous.

Croft opted out of state testing for her son Cougar, who is now entering his senior year of high school. In 10th grade, Cougar visited a library to take the Keystone Exam and was so afraid throughout the entire exam that it just wasn’t worth it to his mother.

“He said, ‘Mom, I was so nervous that I was going to have a seizure. I just couldn’t.’ I said, ‘Well, OK, we’re not doing this anymore. I’m not putting you through this,’” she said.

In 2016-17, Agora piloted a program that allowed some students to take the PSSAs online from some of the school’s centers. Conti said he hopes to conduct more exams like that in the future.

What can be done?

No state has high-performing cyber charter schools across the board, said Nelson Smith, senior advisor with the National Association of Charter School Authorizers [NACSA].

A 2016 national report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, 50CAN and NACSA found that students at cyber charter schools across the country exhibit weaker academic growth than those who attend traditional brick-and-mortar public schools. As compared to students in traditional public schools the study showed students enrolled in full-time virtual charter schools often get 180 days less learning in math and 72 days fewer in reading.

“They’re enrolling a lot of kids who just aren’t set up to succeed in that environment.”

The report made six recommendations to improve academic achievement in cyber charter schools nationwide that included:

  • States should require cyber charter schools to implement enrollment criteria to admit students who are more likely to succeed in a virtual environment.
  • States should require cyber charter schools to put an admittance cap on their enrollment, which could be raised based on academic performance. This is to ensure the schools are proving effective with a sample of students before expanding.
  • States should tie funding of cyber charter schools to “some level of performance.”

Enrollment at cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania ranges from a few hundred students to more than 9,000 students, according to the latest available PDE data from 2015-16.

“They’re enrolling a lot of kids who just aren’t set up to succeed in that environment,” said Todd Ziebarth, senior vice president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and one of the authors of the study.

These recommendations could require changes in charter school law and cyber school leaders say it's not a process they would support.

“I think that’s ridiculous. Who's going to put a cap on a traditional school district when they don’t score well?” said Conti of Agora, whose school had a peak enrollment of 7,598 students in 2016-17. “No, you can’t choose that because of some arbitrary reason. That’s ridiculous. School choice is school choice. ...If we’re not doing well, parents and students will flee and that’s the truth.”

Though Hayden doesn’t support restrictions on enrollment, he agrees that cyber schools need to make sure they’re explaining the responsibilities of learning in a virtual setting to parents and students when they sign up. His argument against an enrollment cap, or requiring students to leave charter schools if they’re underperforming, is that students who underperform at traditional public schools don’t have to leave their home school.

“Maybe they ought to be required to go to a charter school? It’s the same thing... but the reality is they should be treated equally,” he said.

The report also points to weaker academic growth in all subgroups of students enrolled nationwide in full-time virtual charter schools, broken down by race, economic disadvantage and special needs.

Kayla Hanavan, a fourth-grade teacher with PA Distance Learning Charter School, plans social studies lessons over the summer. The school is headquartered in Wexford, Pa. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania vary when it comes to race and economic disadvantage. While PA Cyber’s enrollment included 80 percent white students in 2015-16 and less than 9 percent black, ACT Academy enrolled 111 students who were 86.5 percent black and 8 percent white. The ASPIRA Bilingual Cyber Charter School, with 239 students, enrolled roughly 86 percent Hispanic students and the rest were black students.

On two ends of the spectrum for economic disadvantage, the data shows 93 percent of Esperanza Cyber Charter School’s 149 students are economically disadvantaged. Yet, only about a third of the 475 students at Pennsylvania Distance Learning had that designation.

Mom and dad don’t ask?

Lizzie Klingler, who graduated from Shippensburg University with a degree in elementary education and middle level reading, enrolled her two oldest children in PA Cyber in 2013, so she could work with them to improve reading comprehension, math and social skills. They stayed at their Selinsgrove home for three years, skipping out on the 40-minute bus ride each way, before heading back to public school.

During the time her children were enrolled in cyber charter school, she saw their creativity flourish, with her daughter, now 15, learning to play the piano and her son, now 13, spending more time on creative writing and drawing.

The low state test scores didn’t bother Klingler, who said she doesn’t know how her local school district does either. She plans to start her 5-year-old son in kindergarten at PA Cyber this fall. It was his choice to go there. Her youngest, who had pediatric cancer and now has dietary restrictions, also will go to PA Cyber when he’s old enough.

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Hollidaysburg resident Marie Stonebraker sends three children to the Central Pennsylvania Digital Learning Foundation. She used to worry about state test scores until her youngest, Hannah, went into the testing site last year and didn’t even try.

“She answered whatever she wanted to answer because she wanted to get home,” she said of Hannah, who is 9 and has been diagnosed with ADHD.

Stonebraker said she realized that if her child does better in school than she did on the test, that’s probably happening to other students, too.

At cyber charter school, Stonebraker has watched her children excel. Even when her family is out to eat and playing trivia, Stonebraker said she’s often impressed with the things she didn’t realize they learned in school, like the heat of the sun and details about planets.

Her 15-year-old son, Isaac, opted to stay in public school. Recently, when he was helping his brother, Will, 12, with a geometry lesson, he approached Stonebraker, puzzled: “‘Mom, I’m just learning this now. It’s not fair.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, you chose to go the regular public school way. Your siblings are choosing to do it this way.’”

StoryStephanie Hacke

Stephanie is a freelance journalist in Pittsburgh. She can be reached at

PhotographyRyan Loew

Ryan is PublicSource's visual producer.

EditingHalle Stockton and Mila Sanina

Halle is PublicSource's managing editor. Mila is PublicSource's executive director.

Web developmentNatasha Khan

Natasha is PublicSource's interactives & design editor.