Year after year, cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania are not meeting standards on the state's annual exams.
Again this year, their overall marks fall far below those of York County school districts.
Among the eight cyber schools regularly enrolling York County students, only Pennsylvania Leadership and 21st Century Cyber made adequate yearly progress on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams.
Those tests gauge a student's proficiency, or his or her ability to perform adequately in reading and math.
The eight cyber schools are PA Virtual, PA Cyber, 21st Century, Agora, Commonwealth Connections, Pennsylvania Leadership, PA Distance Learning and Achievement House.
Cyber school officials contend they are not facing the same situation as school districts, and so their results must be looked at differently.
"Sixty percent of our kids have not been with us for a year when they are tested. It's tough, and we're the best of that group" of cybers, said John Marsh, CEO at 21st Century.
Scores: The average math proficiency among the eight cyber schools was 45.5 percent, compared to 80.7 percent among York County school districts.
Reading was only slightly better, at 59.1 percent for the cybers and 75.9 percent by the districts.
21st Century has 44 York County students out of its 781 overall, and they are all taught by highly qualified, certified teachers, Marsh said.
To help students with different needs, they rolled out a new option for schedules that mirrors a traditional school day, with set times for everything. Most students learn on their own time, but some needed the structure, Marsh said.
While most York County school districts now offer their own cyber program in hopes of regaining academic control and tuition dollars, Marsh said his school still has the advantage over a local option. As a cyber school in its 12th year, "we've learned a lot along the way" on how to teach students online, he said.
"Yes, they (students) do try to go to cyber schools in the district. But you know what? They are coming back," Marsh said.
Trying to reach marks: Among the other cyber schools, PA Cyber was put on warning status after missing AYP for the first time in four years.
As the biggest cyber in the state -- more than 10,500 students with nearly 500 from York County -- it had a slight drop nearly across the board in math and reading scores, said Sandra Fouch, director of federal programs, assessment and research.
Fouch said the drop was surprising, but there's a renewed emphasis on giving each student all the individual support he or she needs.
Still, with the state raising the benchmarks for reading and math proficiency each year, it's getting harder and harder to meet standards, she said. Forty percent of PA Cyber students are academically behind their peers at the time they enroll, she said.
"We're in the same boat as everyone else," Fouch said of cybers.
The PSSA standard for the 2011-12 school year was 78 percent for math proficiency and 81 percent for reading proficiency. None of the eight cybers hit those overall marks, while most school districts hit at least one.
PA Leadership Cyber School, which has 51 York County students, showed a jump in PSSA performance.
Erin Keefe, the school improvement coordinator, said her school spent more time breaking students into small group instruction and getting their curriculum lined up with state standards. That helped their overall math proficiency to jump by 4 percent to 59.1 percent.
Like Rouch, Keefe said it can be particularly difficult for cyber schools to get year-to-year gains when they have students cycling through. Making AYP "gives us some validation that we belong here, too," Keefe said. "It meant a lot to our teachers."
It also might help quiet critics, she said, although the most often-heard cyber school criticism by districts is "you're taking our money, you're taking our students," Keefe said.
"We're not in it for the money. We're a nonprofit," Keefe said.
-- Reach Andrew Shaw at firstname.lastname@example.org