A dispute erupted on Dec. 16 when the ratings came out on the Branson Alternative School, a virtual school headquartered in Branson, Colo. State officials marked Branson down as one of the worst schools in the state, but angry supporters blame brick-and-mortar rules for artificially depressing the online school’s results.
Branson Alternative, operated from a 1920s schoolhouse in southern Colorado, reportedly earns millions for the otherwise impoverished district. And parents say it renewed their faith in public education after their children, many of whom have special physical or emotional needs, had bad experiences in regular schools.
But in just-released state rankings, Branson Alternative was tagged the worst elementary school, worst middle school, and third-worst high school in Colorado.
Critics say the rankings had more to do with turnout than with measures of school quality.
Like all students in all public schools in Colorado, kids who take courses from the Branson virtual school have to take Colorado Standards of Academic Progress (CSAP) and ACT tests. But last school year, 95 percent of Branson’s students didn’t.
Each of them was averaged in as a zero. Less than zero, actually. The punitive scoring for no-shows was designed to discourage principals from letting weak test-takers take a pass on exam day.
“I don’t oppose the testing,” said Branson Superintendent Alan Aufderheide. “But to put a punitive, coercive thing in like the math they put in, it doesn’t sit well with a number of peopleme as well as any number of parents.”
Officials at Branson School started putting coursework online four years ago so the 40 students in the school wouldn’t fall behind on mud days.
“The roads are clay or gravel, and when we get a good rain for a day and a half, it just turns to awful,” Aufderheide said.
The online courses became an internet success story, according to an Associated Press report. The virtual Branson School won recognition from the state Education Department last year as a bona fide public school, and this year it offers a full slate of courses by computer to 520 students, from kindergarten up, statewide.
Families had many reasons for not taking last year’s tests, Aufderheide said. For some, it was inconvenient because distance-learning students have to travel to a testing site to meet a proctor. For others, it was a matter of political conviction.
But at least one legislator says Aufderheide and Branson OnLine parents are wrong to expect special treatment just because their students use keyboards instead of classrooms.
“I’m pretty adamant about the fact that if we’re going to spend public dollars to educate these kids, and we’re going to put them in school districts, then they take the CSAP,” said state Rep. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, chief author of the school finance law.
Aufderheide said the school was pushing for online testingbut state officials said that for now, only pencil-and-paper tests would be administered.
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