Georgia lacks clear policy for counting online attendance

Questions about the accuracy of enrollment reports from Georgia’s three largest online schools have the state reconsidering how it lets them count attendance.

Taxpayers give the schools more than $5,000 per student, and a recent examination by state auditors found insufficient state controls over how they count them. In the 2014-15 school year alone three schools reported 371 more students than records supported. One problem: Georgia has not defined what it means to be “present” in an online classroom, leading to inconsistent counting methods that could have inflated the numbers.

It’s a small number relative to the nearly 20,000 students in these schools, but it would add up to more than $1.8 million in one year if the errors went uncorrected.

Two of the schools, Georgia Connections Academy and Graduation Achievement Charter High School, agreed with the findings. Georgia Cyber Academy acknowledged “issues” but disagreed with crucial details in the examination, contending that it actually underreported enrollment and thereby shorted itself money.

The Georgia Department of Education is establishing a new process to determine online attendance.

Rep. Tom Dickson, R-Cohutta, chaired the education subcommittee of the state House Appropriations Committee, which asked for the state Department of Audits' examination. He said these online schools caught lawmaker's attention because they grew so quickly. The Cyber Academy opened in 2007 and is now the largest public school in the state, with more than 13,000 students in all 159 counties. Connections Academy, with about 4,000 students, and Charter High, with about 2,000, opened about half a decade later.

It’s tricky to determine whether a student is present online, Dickson said. Students log onto classes from home then watch lectures, talk to and exchange messages with teachers and classmates and do assignments. But how, he asked, do you know they really are there?

Until last fall, the state had not verified the accuracy of the attendance the schools were reporting. Said Dickson, “You can’t just take the data and say, OK, that’s it.”

The counting process is so inexact that two state agencies reached differing conclusions after reviewing some of the same records.

For example, the auditors found Charter High reported 221 more students than the records supported, but the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement (GOSA), which performed its first-ever attendance audit around the same time, found 88 students were reported in error. The auditors found 68 students who did not quality as enrolled at Connections Academy, but GOSA found no issues worth reporting.

And the auditors determined the Cyber Academy reported having 82 more students than its records supported, yet GOSA found an 89-student discrepancy.

Cyber Academy, meanwhile, said after reviewing the records, that it had reported 44 students it should not have, but it also determined it had failed to report 102 students who were enrolled. So the school calculated it educated 58 students without getting paid, saving the state about $290,000.

The state auditors did not confirm the accuracy of Cyber Academy’s assertions, but GOSA did say the school had taken appropriate steps to reduce the chance of future errors.

Neither the schools or agencies could explain why their numbers were different. But the auditors recommended that the state DOE come up with a uniform standard for reporting attendance.

Absent clear guidance from the state, each school developed its own way of counting.

The Cyber Academy relies on "coaches" (typically parents or guardians) to submit attendance records while Charter High uses student log-in reports, the auditors wrote in their February report. Both were "less stringent" than Connections Academy, which also uses coach reports but compares them against computer records that show a student both logging into the system and completing course work.

“It’s been the Wild West and everybody is just told you can do attendance data the way you want to,” said Monica Henson, the superintendent of Charter High, who said she would welcome a clear attendance policy.

The auditors found that Charter High reported students as enrolled though they hadn't logged into the computer systems during the counting period, as the school's policy required. Henson blamed technology issues. Her board was paying EdisonLearning, an education corporation, for online educational services, but ended the contract over disagreements about data and technology, she said. An Ohio online school managed by EdisonLearning was found by that state to have been overpaid based on its student attendance reporting, according to The Columbus Dispatch.

At Connections Academy, students were reported as enrolled though they had not logged in, completed a lesson or both, the auditors found. School executive director Heather Robinson said that was due in part to students who left the school without telling anyone. “Because those kids don’t live in our neighborhood, we can’t drive to their house and find out what happened to them,” she said.

“The issue is that every virtual school defines attendance differently,” Robinson said, “and when you are defining attendance in three different ways you clearly are not measuring the same thing.”

Cyber Academy didn’t require computer log-ins to confirm attendance, so auditors dug into other records to check enrollment and found contradictory information.

In one case, they wrote, the school told the state a student was enrolled with no absences when other documents showed that the student was withdrawn because of “excessive unexcused absences.” In another case, a student had 19 unexcused absences in one set of records but none in another. And auditors found two students with perfect attendance in 2014-15 though they weren’t enrolled.

Cyber Academy blamed inaccuracies on the migration of data from an old student information system to a new one, and noted that GOSA, in its own audit, had determined that the school had taken steps to reduce the likelihood of future errors.

The auditors reported that the school requires only that a learning coach report student attendance.

But Mike Hassinger, a spokesman for the Cyber Academy board, said that K12, the corporation paid to run the school, has teachers double-check the attendance reports filed by student coaches.

K12 has been questioned about attendance issues before. It manages public schools in 33 states, including California. The state attorney general there accused the corporation of pressuring teachers to sign "doctored" attendance records. On July 8, K12 entered a civil settlement, admitting to no wrongdoing and agreeing to pay California $8.5 million, including $80,000 to a former teacher who claimed she was fired for complaining about altered attendance records.

Dickson, the state lawmaker, said he's anxious to see what steps the Georgia DOE will take in reaction to the state auditors' examination. An online attendance policy is needed, he said, "particularly with the Cyber Academy because most of their responses were 'we don't think there's a problem.'"

DOE spokesman Matt Cardoza said his agency is writing an online attendance policy.

But, he said, the DOE will not try to collect any overpayments.

Read recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports about online schools in Georgia, with in-depth coverage of the issues involving the performance of the largest one, the Georgia Cyber Academy.