Report: Virtual classes expanding but pass rates lag

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

The number of Michigan students learning through virtual classes is increasing, but performance in those courses lags traditional learning, according to a report requested by the state Legislature.

The report, prepared by the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute, a division of Michigan Virtual University, estimates more than 76,000 K-12 public school students participated in virtual learning during the 2013-14 school year, accounting for more than 319,000 virtual course enrollments.

The number of students was up 38 percent from 2012-13, and the number of course enrollments rose 78 percent, according to Michigan’s K-12 Virtual Learning Effectiveness Report, 2013-14.

“The trends are clear that more and more K-12 students will be taking virtual courses in the coming years, and the need to be able to learn in this kind of environment has become an important part of being college and career ready,” Jamey Fitzpatrick, president and CEO of MVU, said in a statement. “Schools and virtual learning providers must find better models — both in the virtual and physical environments — to assist novice virtual learners in developing 21st-century skills.”

MVU is a state-sponsored nonprofit that provides online instruction to K-12 students.

This year’s report includes a comparison between virtual and nonvirtual learners.

According to state data, students who did not take any virtual courses in the 2013-14 school year had a completion rate of 89 percent. Most students who took virtual courses also took nonvirtual courses. But, according to the report, they passed their nonvirtual courses only 71 percent of the time, down 1 percentage point from 2012-13.

The report also found a drop-off in the completion rate for virtual students in virtual classes as opposed to traditional classes. Those students passed virtual classes just 57 percent of the time, down 3 percentage points from the year before.

The report says there could be many explanations for the achievement gap but concludes “whatever combination of factors it is ... the bottom line is that too many Michigan students are not being adequately educated through existing virtual learning options.”

Other findings in the report:

■The most popular virtual courses were in English language and literature, math, life and physical sciences, and social sciences and history.

■Rural students tended to do better in virtual classes, with a pass rate of 65 percent. Suburban students’ completion rate was 56 percent, and city students’ passage rate was 53 percent.

■Sixty-four percent of virtual enrollments came from students living in poverty, compared with a statewide average of 48 percent of students in poverty for all types of classes.

Sarah Lenhoff, director of research and policy for the Royal Oak-based Education Trust-Midwest, said the report shows educators should be cautious about expanding virtual learning.

“The new report suggests that students perform worse in virtual courses the more of them they take,” she said in a statement. “That raises real concerns about all-virtual schools, which tend to serve low-income student populations.”

To view the full report, go to