New Research on the Efficacy of Connections Academy Virtual Public Schools Reveals Positive Academic Outcomes

Report, Peer Reviewed by SRI International, Sheds Light on the Impact of Mobility and the Academic Performance of Students at Virtual Schools Compared to Brick-and-Mortar School Peers

COLUMBIA, Md. (June 15, 2018) -- A new research study has identified the types of students who enroll in Connections Academy full-time, K-12 online schools and the efficacy of the program on students' academic achievement. Conducted over the course of the 2016-2017 school year, peer reviewed by SRI International and audited by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), the results provide evidence that Connections Academy students can attain the same level of achievement as that offered at traditional brick-and-mortar schools. Overall findings show that students may also be better positioned in Connections Academy schools than other virtual schools.

Research of the Connections Academy program set out to explore the types of students who attend Connections Academy online schools and how they perform. The project first unveiled a distinctive set of profiles within the student body of more than 70,000 students across Connections Academy schools. Students most commonly identified as one or more of the following: academically advanced, academically struggling, experiencing health problems, experiencing bullying or seeking increased flexibility and choice. These characteristics create a unique student population with a higher mobility rate, and a host of other complex needs known to impact academic performance, that differs from traditional brick-and-mortar schools. Mobility has been shown to have a significant negative impact on math and reading achievement while increasing high school dropout rates.*

The school comparison study then directly compared achievement at a Connections Academy school to a similar non-charter brick-and-mortar school and virtual school within the same state.

SRI International independently reviewed and approved the following efficacy statements:

  • There was no statistical difference in percentage scoring proficient in math and reading between student cohorts in Connections Academy schools and cohorts in brick-and-mortar schools that were matched on prior achievement, and after adjusting for district-mean student mobility and school-mean student SES and other demographic factors.
  • Student cohorts in Connections Academy schools statistically outperformed (by 7.9 percentage points) cohorts in other virtual schools (matched on prior achievement) in terms of the percentage scoring proficient in reading on state assessments.
  • There was no statistical difference in percentage scoring proficient in math between student cohorts in Connections Academy schools and cohorts in other virtual schools that were matched on prior achievement.

"We're committed to constantly gaining a better understanding of students' unique needs so that we can better serve them," said Matthew Wicks, vice president efficacy research and reporting for Pearson Online & Blended Learning. "We took the most in-depth look at Connections Academy students, school performance, and student mobility to better understand the impact of Connections Academy schools on learner outcomes. When students feel like they're constantly sprinting to catch up, that can cause even more negative impacts on their academic performance, no matter what their circumstances are. These results shed light on how impactful mobility is on academic student performance, and the need to reshape the national narrative on the accountability framework for virtual schools."

For more than 15 years, Connections Academy schools have provided students across the country access to a full-time online education complete with dedicated and credentialed teachers, high-quality curriculum, and the flexibility to learn from anywhere with an internet connection. The online school program used by Connections Academy schools is provided by Pearson.

Pearson engages in research on the products and services it provides to better understand "what works, when, where, how and why" and applies those insights to continuously improve its offerings.

About Connections Academy
Connections Academy is a leading provider of high-quality virtual schooling for students in grades K through 12. Connections Academy delivers superior, personalized education for students, with the freedom and flexibility to experience the Connections Academy online learning community from anywhere. The combination of certified teachers, an award-winning curriculum, technology tools, and community experiences creates a supportive and successful online learning opportunity for families and children who want an individualized approach to education. Connections Academy-supported schools offer grades K through 12, though some public school programs do not offer all grades. For more information, call 1-800-382-6010 or visit Connections Academy is part of the global learning company Pearson.

About SRI International
SRI International creates world-changing solutions to make people safer, healthier, and more productive. SRI, a research center headquartered in Menlo Park, California, works primarily in advanced technology and systems, biosciences, computing, and education. SRI brings its innovations to the marketplace through technology licensing, spin-off ventures and new product solutions.

*Source: Rumberger, Russell W. (2015). Student Mobility: Causes, Consequences, and Solutions. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center.

PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) audited the accuracy and appropriate use of all data included in the studies. Pearson Education has retained SRI International to provide technical assistance to improve the rigor of the efficacy research and implementation research conducted by Pearson. Toward this end, SRI is: (i) conducting a third-party academic review of recent Pearson research reports in the areas of causal research, correlational research, and implementation research grounded in the WWC (What Works Clearinghouse) Standards and Procedures and the ESSA Standards of Evidence, (ii) advising on how recent Pearson research reports could be strengthened without additional data collection or significant redesign, and (iii) providing formative assistance on how future Pearson research efforts could be improved to provide more accurate and compelling findings. In addition to providing targeted research report feedback, SRI is supporting Pearson in developing its own capacity for conducting internal research reviews.

Student profile study
Student profile information was achieved by first merging multiple 2015-16 data files into one comprehensive database that included student demographic information, information collected via the Connections Academy Student and Family Information Forms (SIF and FIF), grading and attendance information, and student mobility data (defined as the number of times a student changed schools beyond expected grade promotions). Then, a careful examination of this data was conducted, which revealed seven distinct profiles for students choosing a Connections Academy virtual school.

Matched comparison study
Connections Academy student cohorts at each grade-level and subject area were matched with student cohorts at brick-and-mortar and virtual schools within the same state. Matches were based on data from either 2014 or 2015 depending on the availability of complete state-reported data. State test achievement data (defined as the percentage of students scoring proficient or above on state tests) was collected for grades 3 to 8 from 19 states' Departments of Education where a Connections Academy school had operated for three or more years: Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas and Utah. District-level student mobility data was also collected from each state along with school and district demographic data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Given the significance of mobility in the Connections Academy student population, and the importance of academic achievement in evaluating any educational program's success, mobility rate (only publicly available at the district level) and prior student achievement were the primary factors in selecting a "matching" brick-and-mortar school for each Connections Academy school. After matching on prior achievement and adjusting for student mobility and other demographic factors, student cohorts were then statistically compared on the percent of students proficient on state math and reading state tests in 2015 and/or 2016.

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