Background: In the United States, primary and secondary online schools are institutions that deliver online curricula for children enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade (K-12). These institutions commonly provide opportunities for online instruction in conjunction with local schools for students who may need remediation, have advanced needs, encounter unqualified local instructors, or experience scheduling conflicts. Internet-based online schooling may potentially help children from populations known to have educational and health disadvantages, such as those from certain racial or ethnic backgrounds, those of low socioeconomic status, and children with special health care needs (CSHCN).
Objective: To describe the basic and applied demographics of US online-school users and to compare student achievement in traditional versus online schooling environments.
Methods: We performed a brief parental survey in three states examining basic demographics and educational history of the child and parents, the child’s health status as measured by the CSHCN Screener, and their experiences and educational achievement with online schools and class(es). Results were compared with state public-school demographics and statistical analyses controlled for state-specific independence.
Results: We analyzed responses from 1971 parents with a response rate of 14.7% (1971/13,384). Parents of online-school participants were more likely to report having a bachelor’s degree or higher than were parents of students statewide in traditional schools, and more of their children were white and female. Most notably, the prevalence of CSHCN was high (476/1971, 24.6%) in online schooling. Children who were male, black, or had special health care needs reported significantly lower grades in both traditional and online schools. However, when we controlled for age, gender, race, and parental education, parents of CSHCN or black children reported significantly lower grades in online than in traditional schooling (adjusted odds ratio [aOR] 1.45, 95% confidence interval [CI] 1.29–1.62 for CSHCN, P < .001; aOR 2.73, 95% CI 2.11–3.53 for black children, P < .001.) In contrast, parents with a bachelor’s degree or higher reported significantly higher online-school grades than traditional-school grades for their children (aOR 1.45, 95% CI 1.15–1.82, P < .001).
Conclusions: The demographics of children attending online schools do not mirror those of the state-specific school populations. CSHCN seem to opt into online schools at a higher rate. While parents report equivalent educational achievement in online and traditional classrooms, controlling for known achievement risks suggests that CSHCN and black children have lower performance in online than in traditional schools. Given the millions of students now in online schools, future studies must test whether direct assistance in online schools, such as taking individualized education plans into consideration, will narrow known disparities in educational success. Only then can online schools emerge as a true educational alternative for at-risk populations.