Classical Academy High is a non-classroom-based charter school, authorized by Escondido Union High School District. Last year, it served roughly 1,300 students, 24 percent of whom lived near the federal poverty line. It scored -23 in the analysis. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Virtual charter schools – as well as other charters that don’t use traditional brick-and-mortar classrooms – performed among the worst in San Diego County in a new analysis of test scores that took each school’s poverty level into account.

The analysis compared 632 schools across San Diego County. Out of 14 non-classroom-based charter schools, as they are called in education jargon, five scored among the 20 lowest-performing schools. Nine out of 14 schools scored among the bottom 15 percent.

California’s non-classroom-based schools have lived under a magnifying glass in recent years. State legislators placed a moratorium on new non-classroom schools, after executives from one online charter siphoned more than $80 million into their own private companies. Legislators also temporarily blocked the schools from receiving new funds.

The new analysis, performed by Voice of San Diego and the Center for Research and Evaluation at UC San Diego Extension, did not just look at a school’s test scores. It compared a school’s performance on standardized tests to other schools with similar poverty levels.

Brick-and-mortar charters performed in line with traditional public schools in the analysis. But non-classroom-based charters scored significantly worse.

“I can say we’re disappointed with those results and we’re doing something about it,” said J.J. Lewis, superintendent of Compass Charter Schools. Compass runs three online charter schools in Southern California, including one in San Diego.

The analysis combined the three most recent years’ worth of test scores: 2017, 2018 and 2019.

Those scores represent a snapshot in time, Lewis said. And in his case, he has used the snapshot to try to push his students toward academic gains and improve Compass’s educational practices. Since noticing its low test scores, Compass has created an entire tutoring department and hired individual tutors to work with its students to try to bring them up, he said. The school has also increased the number of counselors it employs, he said.

Non-classroom-based charters offer different kinds of academic programs. Compass, for instance, has two tracks. About 20 percent of students have an online curriculum, guided by a teacher they frequently meet with online, Lewis said. The other 80 percent are in a program that might be best described as home school-lite. Compass gives those students an online curriculum and access to teachers and counselors, but the students and their parents are largely in charge of managing the experience.

Still other non-classroom-based schools hand out assignments to their students in the form of paper packets. Students complete the packets at home and meet with a teacher when they return them.

Numerous studies have shown online charters perform poorly, including research from conservative-leaning think tanks. But despite the negative press for poor performance and financial scandals, non-classroom-based enrollment grew significantly during the pandemic and appears as if it will continue to grow. Compass, for instance, expects to increase its enrollment by 22 percent in the coming year, Lewis said.

Compass enrolled roughly 1,000 students last school year – making it mid-sized for San Diego non-classroom-based schools. Some of the online charter schools in our analysis enrolled as few as 200, while other enrolled thousands. Cabrillo Point Academy, for instance, enrolled 4,415.

Cabrillo Point was authorized by Dehesa Elementary, a tiny school district in East County, which operates just one traditional public school with roughly 120 students. (Charter schools must receive authorization from a school district in order to operate.) Online charters like Cabrillo Point manage to enroll so many students because they are allowed to draw attendees from anywhere in the county, rather than the district where they are authorized. They are also allowed to pull students from each surrounding county.

That means Cabrillo, despite being authorized by tiny Dehesa, can draw on millions of potential students in San Diego, Riverside, Orange and Imperial counties.

The analysis did not include all currently operating non-classroom-based charters in San Diego County. Some newer schools did not have enough available test data to be included. Non-classroom-based charters that are considered “dashboard alternative” schools were also excluded from the analysis.

California measures all of its schools on a statewide dashboard. Dashboard alternative schools serve a high percentage of at-risk students, such as those who have been expelled. Those schools are still required to take state tests, but they are measured with wider and more forgiving metrics, like school climate as well.

Had dashboard alternatives been included, non-classroom-based operations would have performed even worse in the analysis.

Here’s how the analysis worked: At Cabrillo Point, for instance, roughly 32 percent of students live near the federal poverty line. Schools with that level of poverty tended to score an average of 24 points above the state’s proficiency cutoff in their combined English language and math scores.

But Cabrillo Point scored 51 points below the proficiency cutoff. In other words, Cabrillo Point scored 75 points lower than it should have, so it scores a -75 in our analysis.

Cabrillo Point’s principal did not respond to a request for comment.

Any school that scored 0 in the analysis scored exactly in line with its expectations. Seventy percent of all schools scored between 25 and -25 – meaning those schools test scores lined up roughly with expectations.

The remaining schools were either positive or negative outliers. Non-classroom-based charter schools had an average score of -30.

Critics have long pointed out that raw test scores measure out-of-school factors, such as poverty, more than they measure learning. Schools with high poverty levels almost always have low test scores, and vice versa. Our analysis controlled for poverty, in order to help highlight schools that are closing the achievement gap and those that aren’t.

But some critics of standardized tests still think they say almost nothing at all – even when controlling for poverty.

“I feel like it’s just a waste of print,” said Christine Kuglen, principal of Innovations Academy, about the analysis.

Innovations is a traditional brick-and-mortar charter that performed below expectations.

The analysis included 64 traditional charter schools. They scored an average of 0 – meaning they performed in line with expectations. But traditional charter schools were over-represented in the 20 lowest-performing schools. Even though they only represented 10 percent of the schools in the analysis, they represented 20 percent of the schools that scored in the bottom 20.

In Innovations’ case, that’s because the school serves non-traditional learners and because it doesn’t teach to tests, said Kuglen. Families come to the school, Kuglen said, because they’ve had bad experiences in traditional public schools. In some cases, she said, the bad experience was the actual stress of standardized testing.

“We sell this bag of garbage to parents that tests actually mean something and they don’t. I truly believe the only reason these tests exist is because it’s a requirement of government or anyone giving money away to measure results,” said Kuglen. “The reason test scores are given so much validity is because they’re easy. But they’re simple and mindless.”

Kuglen argued that it’s difficult to know what test scores mean. They are measuring something, she said, but it’s not intelligence.

Some research has noted that out-of-school factors such as poverty account for 60 percent of variation in test scores. But the same research suggests that 20 percent of variation in test scores are explained by school quality.

Bella Mente Montessori Academy, another charter that performed below expectations, also serves many students who had negative experiences in previous schools, said the school’s principal Erin Feeley. The school focuses on wellness and the environment and has received recognition for its sustainability practices.

In response to its low assessment scores, Bella Mente has adopted new curriculum, hired a new administration, added two reading specialists, begun assessing students more frequently internally and trained teachers in data analysis, Feeley said.

Traditional public schools had an average score of 3 in the analysis. Unlike charters, they were under-represented in the 20 lowest-performing schools in the analysis.

But some high-profile schools that have struggled in recent years did perform near the bottom. Lincoln High, for instance, scored a -62. Two of its feeder schools, Knox Middle and Millennial Tech Middle, were also among the 20 lowest-performing.

Lincoln has been the center of controversy in recent months. It has experienced high administrator turnover since the campus reopened in 2007 and a recent community forum had to be ended early when it went off the rails.

Lincoln’s principal did not respond to a request for comment.

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego. He can be reached by email or phone at or 619-693-6249.

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