- Associated Press - Saturday, April 18, 2015

CASPER, Wyo. (AP) - Teachers, administrators and other school officials say they are determined to fix distance education in Wyoming.

That was the consensus from a two-day meeting at Casper College that finished Friday.

The meeting involved 14 members of the state’s Distance Education Task Force, along with members of the Wyoming Department of Education and state schools chief Jillian Balow, who appeared briefly.

The issue of accountability of virtual schools came up repeatedly. Parents and state officials have no way of knowing how virtual schools are performing in the state.

The state’s full-time distance programs - Niobrara County’s Wyoming Virtual Academy, Big Horn County’s Wyoming Connections Academy and Campbell County Virtual School - collectively teach some 1,000 students in the state, according to data provided by the state education department.

“The state largely depends on the local districts to monitor their students,” wrote Kari Eakins, communications director for the Wyoming Department of Education, in an email.

That’s because tests results from virtual school students are aggregated with schools in the districts where the programs are based. The data is then delivered to the state for analysis.

District officials can separate the information, but because of how the Wyoming Education Accountability Act requires school ratings to be calculated, the same scores cannot be determined for virtual schools, said Nicole Tiley, the head of Wyoming Virtual Academy.

“It’s not separated anywhere,” Tiley told the Casper Star-Tribune (http://bit.ly/1HjII70). “There’s no transparency.”

Having virtual students’ scores rolled into public school districts also has the potential of dragging down graduation rates for those districts.

If a student doesn’t graduate on time, or leaves the virtual program and begins homeschooling, that student is counted as a dropout under the current law.

At the same time, the students are often connected to smaller districts in the state, which, because of smaller student populations, are more likely to have their graduation rates affected by additional dropouts from virtual schools.

For example, almost twice as many virtual students are in Niobrara County as there are traditional ones, according to state data because a virtual school is based in the county. It can be a major hit for the district, dragging down its graduation rate, said Aaron Carr, the district’s superintendent.

Niobrara County School District had a 50 percent graduation rate last year, according to state data. But Carr contends that is not an accurate reflection of how his brick-and-mortar schools are doing.

“There’s a lot of need to at least see it separately,” Carr said, referring to the virtual school data. “They are still our students. We own that data. But just so we can see progress.”

This points to a larger issue, Carr said. By focusing on test results and data, the state and federal government misses out on other indicators of success.

Much work remains, Balow told the task force Friday.

“Right now, we’re trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, and we know that’s not going to work,” she said.

The task force will meet every month for the next six in order to present solutions to law makers in the fall, as required by a bill from this year’s legislative session.

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Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com

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