Nearly 2 million U.S. students take an online course.

Online learning programs must take advantage of new tools and practices to personalize learning and help policy makers gauge the performance of online students, according to a new report from the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL).

With the growth of U.S. K-12 online learning enrollments rising each year, the report outlines how policy makers and education leaders might thoughtfully implement new performance metrics and quality assurance for these increasingly popular educational environments.

The report emphasizes that policy discussions must address measuring success through outcomes-driven models.

“Personalization and student-centered learning are the keys to driving student success at all levels,” said Susan Patrick, president and CEO of iNACOL, and co-author of the report. “When education is customized, students remain challenged, supported, and engaged. Teachers using technology tools and high-quality digital content in online learning environments can personalize instruction in ways never before possible, with great potential for moving students further, faster. However, for online learning to reach its true potential, policy makers and leaders must focus squarely on student learning outcomes for examining effectiveness of new models.”

Measuring Quality from Inputs to Outcomes: Creating Student Learning Performance Metrics and Quality Assurance for Online Schools” lays out the need for quality assurance and the challenges this poses for policy makers.

The report provides recommendations and implementation scenarios for key areas of outcomes-based measurement that must be explored more closely.

Proficiency

Proficiency is the most basic of the measures. It evaluates what students know at a point in time in a given subject, and it’s usually associated with grade level. It is a necessary performance metric but insufficient, the report says—especially if proficiency data are solely based on age or grade cohorts, rather than an individual student’s overall proficiency map. Understanding student proficiency is an important starting point for a robust set of indicators.

Individual student growth

Measuring individual student learning based on proficiency, skills, and knowledge gained in a given period of time is a foundational concept behind growth. Examining individual student learning growth is necessary, the report says, because proficiency measures alone will tend to reward schools whose students arrive above grade level and penalize schools whose students arrive below grade level.

This is of particular concern to online schools, because they are often chosen by students who have been unsuccessful in traditional learning environments; are not achieving at grade level; are at-risk, over age, and under-credited; or otherwise not successful in a traditional brick-and-mortar school.

Graduation rate

Obtaining a high school diploma or equivalent (such as a GED) represents an important milestone for students and is an indicator of future economic and social success. Graduation rate, however, has some drawbacks that must be addressed if it’s to be used effectively as a performance indicator of online-learning programs.

Often this measure does not consider student mobility and credit deficiencies when students move into a new school. In many cases, graduation rate does not include an accommodation for extended time, and in some cases schools’ graduation rates are based on cohorts instead of individual students.

College and career readiness

Definitions of college readiness vary. Regardless of the specific definition, there is a growing gap between students having a high school diploma or GED and being fully prepared with knowledge, skills, and dispositions for postsecondary education or to enter the workforce.

Closing the achievement gap

Closing the achievement gap must include quality assurance provisions to ensure all students are held to high standards of college and career readiness and provide equity and excellence for all students.

“The ability for teachers and students to access immediate data opens up the possibility for the opportunity to know where a student is in their learning, and what is needed to move them forward, guiding and supporting students as they move at their own pace, demonstrating mastery, lesson to lesson,” said Patrick.

“The ability to support student-centered progress and demonstration of content knowledge is one of the most powerful aspects of online learning. Understanding what makes a learning environment for students most effective is desperately needed to ensure student attainment, content mastery, knowledge, and success. These core concepts can help move the field towards thinking more about outcomes-based performance metrics for quality assurance for any learning environment, as well as online schools.”

“High-quality education providers—whether public schools, nonprofit organizations, or private companies—want to be able to demonstrate positive student outcomes, but are often limited in their ability to do so by state data and assessment systems,” said John Watson, founder of the Evergreen Education Group. “The recommendations in this report will help states move toward being able to better assess a wide range of educational organizations.”

In the United States there are nearly 2 million students taking single online courses and 275,000 students in full-time online schools, the report says. Twenty-eight states offer online courses through a statewide virtual school providing students with supplemental online courses; 31 states have full-time online schools for students in K-12 education.