Yet these are hardly foolproof. Students who trade virtual courses with each other also hand off their personal Q-and-As. Most part-time virtual-school teachers hardly ever recognize their students’ voices and don’t realize that the kid answering an on-the-spot civics question isn’t the same one who failed the test online two minutes ago. The opposite is also true. As my former student Lizza Martinez told me, "That system just sets itself up to fail. I can't even remember my [Florida Virtual School] teachers' names, let alone any info."
And courses like these often seem to be endorsed by state education departments, which are run with funds that frequently lack any accountability—if only because of poor record-keeping and the tendency among students to drop and re-take courses willy-nilly, sometimes several times per semester.
Still, students often have to pay enrollment fees every time they register for a program, even if it’s the third time they’re signing up for the same course. And it appears that part-time virtual-school students don’t understand that they have become a commodity. They probably don’t know that it’s their public-school budgets, either directly or indirectly, that pay for the classes—which could mean no new football uniforms (or chemistry textbooks) that year. It’s also unlikely that they realize that they won’t get refunds when they drop or fail the course.
Nor do they appear to care about any of it, really. Very few of them are actually capable of learning new and often complicated material—say, calculus—online, by themselves, via a computer. Nor do they want to. It doesn’t impact them unless, like Ahmed, they become victims of the system and another school district rejects their online credits.
Refusing to accept that she would have to repeat so much coursework and not graduate with her peers, Ahmed did her research and discovered that it is up to the principal’s discretion whether to accept the online credits. Indeed, New York State education policy holds that, "After consulting with relevant faculty, [the principal] can award transfer credit … for work done at other educational and cultural institutions and for work done through independent study."
Eventually, thanks to her principal’s judgment, Ahmed had five of her virtual-course credits reinstated. But it’s still a compromise for her: Any of the courses she took after the 2012-13 school year only get recorded as blank credits without a letter grade or percentage, meaning that she doesn’t get any boost to her GPA.
Although her counselor is urging college admissions committees to take her Florida transcript into account when evaluating her applications, Ahmed continued, "My entire junior year grades, including AP classes, mean nothing."
As for P.E., though, Ahmed had little choice. Florida requires only one credit of physical education, the equivalent of one semester. This can also be completed online, where questions may range from "How many points is a basketball goal?" to "What is a standard heart rate after [a certain amount] of [insert activity]?" Parents are supposed to witness and sign off on required physical activities, but as my former student Sarah Lennon Alfonso noted, "Virtual school is not the way to learn subjects such as P.E. One student will pretend to be another student’s mom to attest to the fact she supposedly did 50 jumping jacks, let's say." In order to graduate on time in New York, therefore, Ahmed had to take two extra courses of P.E. during the day, and a third one at night.