Leaders of Indiana's two largest online charter schools say low student test scores don't tell the whole picture of how the schools are performing.
Hoosier Academies and Indiana Connections Academy are both sponsored by Ball State University. Neither school came close to the state average for ISTEP+ scores last year. Ball State has ordered Hoosier Academies to submit a corrective action plan after it received an "F'' on the state's A-F grading scale two years in a row.
Teran Armstrong, head of school for Hoosier Academies, said rapid growth and a lack of best practices in the new world of virtual education have contributed to the school's challenges.
"We went from 500 students to 1,800 students to this year, we had 4,000," Armstrong told the South Bend Tribune.
"We're learning how to best serve the type of students we serve. I tell our teachers we are expected to perform on par with brick and mortars that have been there for a century and have a mascot and football games."
So far, that hasn't happened.
The South Bend Tribune reports just 57 percent of the school's students passed both parts of the ISTEP+ exam in 2011 and 48 percent did so in 2012. The statewide average is about 70 percent for those years.
"I'm not concerned," Armstrong said of the scores. "You're looking at a combination of achievement from students who come in very far behind in credits to students pursuing other interests and are trying to complete their schooling, like pre-Olympic gymnasts."
But Ball State officials are concerned.
Bob Marra, executive director of Ball State's Office of Charter Schools, said Hoosier Academies is not meeting the academic performance standards the charter authorizer expects and assesses each year.
"They'll have to start looking at where the issues are and submit a corrective action plan," Marra said.
Indiana Connections Academy had better test scores but still faces challenges.
Sixty-two percent of its students passed both parts of ISTEP+ in 2011 and 59 percent did so in 2012. But the school received a letter grade from the state of B in 2011 and a D in 2012.
"Obviously, they're going in the wrong direction," Marra said.
Principal Melissa Brown said she is disappointed by the school's performance but said many factors beyond test scores need to be considered.
"The types of students we are serving are struggling. That's why they come to us. It's going to take us a few years to turn the tide there," she said. "I'm confident we've put the strategies in place to help our students grow.
"We've saved lives already, and students are learning who wouldn't have in a traditional setting."
What the future holds for the virtual schools, and others that might follow, isn't clear. Researchers at the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder issued a report in May that likens the policy-making surrounding virtual public schools to the Wild West.
"There are outsized claims, intense conflicts, lots of taxpayer money at stake and very little solid evidence to justify the rapid expansion of virtual education," the NEPC report says.
Western Michigan University professor Gary Miron, one of the study's authors, said virtual schools are "two to three years ahead of the legislators." He said many states haven't crafted laws governing issues specific to virtual schools, such as tracking how much time students spend learning.
Armstrong, from Hoosier Academies, says the school cares about its students.
"I will be the first to state that virtual education, at this point, is not for everybody," she said. "It's a choice. ... We're here to serve the niche of families who feel they need this option."