Students enrolled in Indiana's two largest virtual public schools have a 50 percent to 60 percent chance of passing the ISTEP exam in the coming school year if current achievement trends continue.
The performance of virtual charter schools across the country concerns researchers at the National Education Policy Center -- a collaboration of scholars -- at the University of Colorado Boulder.
The group put out a report in May called "Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2013: Politics, Performance, Policy and Research Evidence."
The study's authors liken the policymaking environment surrounding virtual public schools to the "Wild West."
"There are outsized claims, intense conflicts, lots of taxpayer money at stake and very little solid evidence to justify the rapid expansion of virtual education," the NEPC report says.
However, at least one of the study's authors say they are not against the concept of K-12 online school.
"The center is very enthusiastic about virtual education. We are not naysayers," said Gary Miron, a professor in the College of Education and Human Development at Western Michigan University, and an affiliate of the NEPC. "It's just that it's being defined by the for-profit industry.
"They are two to three years ahead of the legislators," Miron said of those virtual schools, who in many state's cases haven't considered crafting laws relating to issues specific to virtual schools, such as tracking how much time students actually spend at a seat learning.
Some of the researchers' major concerns, he said, include the performance of many of the schools, their rapid growth and retention rates.
From one Indiana virtual school leader's standpoint, virtual education is new and best practices are still being established.
"We went from 500 students to 1,800 students to this year, we had 4,000," said Teran Armstrong, head of school for Hoosier Academies.
"We're learning how to best serve the type of students we serve. I tell our teachers we are expected to perform on par with brick and mortars that have been there for a century and have a mascot and football games."
Hoosier Academies Virtual School, run by K12 Inc., received a letter grade of "F" from the state for 2011 and 2012.
Fifty-seven percent of its students passed both parts of the ISTEP exam in 2011 and 48 percent did so in 2012.
That's compared with state averages of about 70 percent for those years.
"I'm not concerned," Armstrong said of the scores. "... You're looking at a combination of achievement from students who come in very far behind in credits to students pursuing other interests and are trying to complete their schooling, like pre-Olympic gymnasts."
Luis Huerta, an associate professor of education and public policy at Columbia University's Teachers College and a contributor to the May 2013 report on virtual charter schools, pointed out K12 Inc. reached a tentative agreement in a class-action lawsuit in March over investors' claims they were misled by the company's business and academic performance.
K12 agreed to pay $6.75 million to plaintiffs, but denied any wrongdoing, Huerta said.
Jeff Kwitowski, a spokesman for K12, said "the reason for the settlement was solely based on reality that the cost of continued litigation would have likely exceeded settlement amount, and to end the distraction."