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Virtual schools see strong growth, calls for more oversight

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Even some supporters of online learning say education officials need to provide more guidance. Some states allow online Advanced Placement (AP) courses; some don't. Ditto for requiring lab work in science courses. The inconsistencies stunt the online model's growth, says David Reed, a researcher at Arizona State University in Tempe.

Among the oversight questions is how to track attendance. Most states mandate a minimum number of hours of instruction. At Idaho Virtual Academy, the school the LeClaires attend, it falls on parents to submit a weekly log of their child's hours.

What counts as learning time is open to interpretation. A teacher at the academy suggested that a family's Bible reading could count. But Tamara Baysinger, a state official who oversees virtual schools, says parents can't count time spent on curriculum not provided by the school. Computer log-ins provide some objective accounting. "There are monitoring systems in place where they can't just log on and go watch television," says Ms. Baysinger.

Mr. Reed suggests a better way to account for learning: Keep track of course material completed, not number of hours of instruction.

"If I've got a kid who's taken algebra three times and failed it three times, what is the point of putting him in another 90-hour class?" says Reed, who works for a private virtual school. "The Web course allows you to isolate the need and do it quicker, but [schools] don't want to do that because dollars are tied to seat time."

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