A virtual high school run by Indiana University (IU) is drawing fire from critics who say students graduating from the program aren’t fulfilling the same requirements as other students in the state. Some education officials fear the program will push the state a step backward in its efforts to make secondary education more accountable.

At issue is whose standards should govern education that is delivered online, transcending the traditional geographic boundaries. The debate is likely to reach beyond Indiana, as more universities and other organizations launch web-based high school education programs.

“We have very serious concerns about the program,” said Roger Thornton, executive director of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents. “The higher education community across the nation, and particularly here in Indiana, has been pushing for higher standards and accountability for high school students.

“Now, one of our premier institutions in Indiana appears to be launching a program that exempts students from successfully passing the state’s graduation exam,” he continued. “If they really believe in higher standards and accountability, which they have been saying to the Legislature and Commission for Higher Education, we think they ought to live it.”

IU has been offering courses for high school students since 1925; the only thing new about the latest program is its use of the internet to deliver instruction and the fact that it lets students earn diplomas as they study.

But those diplomas aren’t accredited by the state. IU High students aren’t required to take the ISTEP-Plus exam—a mandatory step for other Hoosier high school graduates.

In Indiana, the only schools where students can earn state-recognized high school diplomas are public high schools or accredited nonpublic schools, said Mary Tiede Wilhelmus, a representative for the Indiana Department of Education.

Thornton said although the IU diploma will be recognized by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, it will lack at least three requirements for state accreditation: passing the graduation qualifying exam, or ISTEP-Plus; attending a minimum of 180 days of classes per year; and physical education.

“How can a tax-supported institution circumvent the will of the governor, the state superintendent of public instruction, the Legislature, and its own leadership?” Thornton said. “All four of those entities have been major players in moving the state toward the graduation exam for high school students.”

IU is about three months into its first year of operating Indiana University High School, a long-distance virtual high school, where 10 students are studying via computer or mail to receive their high school diplomas. Another 25 or 30 have applied, said Larry Onesti, associate dean of IU’s School of Continuing Studies and principal of IU High School.

“We want to provide opportunities for nontraditional students—for instance, [for] home schoolers, those who live abroad, people who change residences a lot, home-bound students, and those who may not perform optimally in traditional settings,” Onesti said. Courses are $85 each, plus fees for books and materials.

Such students can learn long-distance style, “talking” with state-accredited teachers by telephone or eMail, chatting with other students the same way, and sending in assignments via their computers or the old-fashioned U.S. Postal Service, Onesti said.

Students can even avail themselves of the services of guidance counselors, who keep regular office hours, with toll-free phone numbers and eMail addresses, he said.

Jeremy Dunning, dean of the School of Continuing Studies, which administers the new program, pointed to its target audience of home schoolers, who aren’t enrolled in a public institution, anyway.

IU doesn’t want students to leave the public school system for its service, Dunning said. “We already have a very good high school system in the state,” he said. “We don’t want to take students away from them.”

More than 500 people have requested application materials so far, Dunning said. He predicted that enrollment will go from its current level to several hundred students, mostly from out of state, in the next few months.

Indiana Department of Education

Indiana University School of Continuing Studies