Two virtual charter schools, including the state’s largest, reported 100 percent attendance last year — an accomplishment rarely, if ever, achieved in a brick-and-mortar school.

With no seats to fill and no roll to call, “attendance” in virtual education takes on a different meaning.

The perfect scores reported by Epic Charter Schools and ABLE Charter School highlight what some say are uneven standards applied to virtual and traditional schools in calculating attendance.

“Nobody is ever sick? Nobody ever doesn’t log on?” questions Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association.

As a 2014 report by the Education Commission of the States points out, the problem with using enrollment numbers to fund virtual schools is a lot of students don’t complete the courses and, in some cases, they return to traditional brick-and-mortar schools.

In Oklahoma, unless a student leaves in the first nine weeks of school, that year’s funding stays with the virtual school.

All schools have a motive to keep their attendance high because attendance rates factor into schools’ A-F report cards and are used in the calculation of school funding.

An answer to how Epic and ABLE can report 100 percent attendance lies within state statute, which specifies that students “may be considered in attendance” by participating in an online course.

Virtual charter schools, then, have the freedom under the law to create their own policies related to attendance. There are five schools, and five different policies.

Schools either require a parent to report the student’s hours, or require the student to log in daily, or base attendance on assignment completion, or some combination of those measures.

“There should be some consistency,” said Rebecca Wilkinson, executive director of the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, “but that’s going to take a change in statute.”

Very few brick-and-mortar district or charter schools achieve 100 percent attendance, and only in isolated single grades in very small schools, according to the state Department of Education.

In traditional schools in Oklahoma, students are expected to attend class 175 days a year. Even excused absences lower a school’s attendance rate.

The three other virtual charter schools – Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy, Insight School of Oklahoma and Oklahoma Connections Academy – reported attendance rates between 97.9 to 98.6 percent for the 2015-2016 school year.

Related to attendance, all the schools have policies to withdraw students who are absent for 10 consecutive days, in line with the state’s truancy laws. In brick and mortar schools, a child who misses 10 or more days in a semester is considered truant.

Epic referred 470 students for truancy last year; that’s nearly 8 percent of its students who were so chronically absent that their parent or guardian may have violated the law. But Epic administrators say they were able to maintain the school’s attendance record by withdrawing those students effective at the start of the 10-day period.

The Education Department said Epic’s attendance method needs to be addressed.

“This is alarming, and clarification of the law would need to be addressed in statute.” said Steffie Corcoran, a department spokeswoman.

Epic says they believe they are complying with the law.

“We just follow that law,” said Superintendent David Chaney. “When they’re in enrolled in an online course, they are considered in attendance. We don’t choose to track hours. We’re not a seat-time-based school. We’re a mastery-based school.”

Epic’s attendance policy requires students to complete five assignments in 10 days. Students aren’t required to log in every day.

Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy, in contrast, moved two years ago to an attendance system based on assignment completion.

Requiring parents to log their student’s hours was turning the school’s teachers into truancy officers, said Head of School Sheryl Tatum. Under the old policy, a parent could log seven hours of work for their child, but if the teacher saw only one quiz completed that day, they would ask the parent to prove the student actually was working on schoolwork.

Now, students receive a list of weekly tasks from their teacher, which can include quizzes and other assignments. If a student completes 70 percent or more of their weekly assignments, they are considered present all five days.

“There’s nothing magical about the fact that I sat in that seat for an hour,” Tatum said. “ It’s really about the actions that I did. How engaged I was with that curriculum. What activities I was doing.”

Some states have taken steps to revamp attendance at virtual schools.

Ohio’s education department wants to use log-in durations and other participation records after an audit of the state’s largest virtual school found most students were logging in just an hour a day. The school sued because it stands to lose millions of dollars in state funding.

That school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, was also found to have inflated its enrollment by more than 9,000 students.

In Georgia, the state education department is revising how online schools calculate attendance after auditors questioned the accuracy of the schools’ enrollment counts. Auditors found schools counting students who hadn’t logged in to the computer system or completed a lesson, or both.

Support our publication

Every day we strive to produce journalism that matters — stories that strengthen accountability and transparency, provide value and resonate with readers like you.

This work is essential to a better-informed community and a healthy democracy. But it isn’t possible without your support.