Online accredited high schools can be a respected alternative to traditional brick-and-mortar schools, offering students an opportunity to complete coursework through a variety of formats. The following guide serves as a valuable resource for parents of students considering enrolling in an online education program. The guide covers topics such as understanding learning expectations at each grade level and the type of curricula offered, where online high school programs are available, a FAQ section and a list of educational resources for online students.
According to a 2015 report from the International Association for K–12 Online Learning, more than 1.3 million students were enrolled in distance education courses at the high school level.
Online High School Introduction
For the parent of the soon-to-be or current high school student, gaining an understanding of what online learning entails, what their students should expect and how to select a school can all be important factors in making a decision about enrolling in an online high school program. A number of different types of programs and schools exist, including fully online and blended (both online and face-to-face), through different types of schools (statewide, public, private). With such diversity, parents can use the following guide as a starting point for making a decision about where to enroll their child.
Credits from accredited—including regionally accredited—high schools should transfer. However, the decision to accept transfer credits is determined by individual schools and school districts.
Admission requirements vary from school to school and district to district, but most students are at least 14 years old, have a school transcript (or homeschool verification) and standardized test scores that demonstrate eighth grade completion.
Yes, students can take classes that can be completed in any setting or environment. Students can establish schedules that allow them to spend as much time as they need to complete their lessons.
Yes, students living internationally can apply from different geographic locations. Students can access coursework 24 hours per day and complete their studies virtually while living in other countries. However, parents should ensure schools accept students from all locations, as some institutions may have geographic limitations.
Getting accepted to college depends on various factors, including the student’s high school. However, other important factors include GPA, extracurricular activities, college application essays, and more. As long as they hold respected accreditation, man colleges view online high schools the same as traditional high schools.
Online high schools use an assortment of student assessment methods, such as quizzes, essays and multiple-choice examinations. Additionally, online high schools may adhere to state testing and assessment schedules, requiring independent students to complete those tests in the same manner as students at traditional high schools.
AP courses are advanced classes available to high school juniors and seniors in mathematics, language arts, and science that allow students to earn college credit at the same time.
Through online learning technologies, such as forums and discussions, students have opportunities to connect with each other. Online high schools may also offer clubs (online and in person), field trips and other social events for students in local areas.
Yes, the online high school sends textbooks and instructional materials directly to students and their families. Public online high schools are free of cost, including learning materials. At private institutions, textbooks may be an extra cost or part of the overall tuition.
Costs vary on the type of online learning option. Online public schools, both district and statewide, are tuition-free, while private school and charter school options may have tuition requirements.
Online High School Definitions
- Accreditation: A reviewing of a school’s quality and performance in regards to a set of educational standards, including national and regional accreditation standards.
- Asynchronous Learning:Self-paced instruction that allows students to complete coursework on their own schedules.
- Blended Learning: An instructional method that combines in person and online learning activities.
- Content Repository: An online warehouse for sharing and saving online or digital content.
- Credit Recovery: Credit recovery describes learning programs and strategies that allow high school students to retake courses or redo coursework in order to earn academic credit to avoid failure and continue into the next grade level or graduate.
- Discussion Board: Also known as online forums or message boards, discussion boards are online bulletin boards for students and instructors to interact and post answers to questions.
- Instructional Designer: An individual or instructor who designs and develops online teaching materials and classes.
- Learning Management System: Also known as content management systems, learning management systems are the online platform for course delivery and grading.
- Multimedia: Multimedia is a broad term to describe a variety of information (often interactive) that includes audio, video, text, or graphics.
- State Virtual School.Operated by state-level agencies (e.g., state department of education) to provide students access to online learning opportunities at the K–12 levels.
- Synchronous Learning: Real-time online learning approach that includes teacher facilitated instruction.
- Virtual Classroom: A term that refers to the digital learning environment.
- Virtual High School: An institution that offers courses fully online or supplemental online instruction.
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Who attends online high school and how does it work for these students?
There are numerous reasons why students or their parents may consider an online education. Because of the individualized learning opportunities, online high schools can serve a diverse population of students that traditional educational settings may not be able to serve in a one-to-one basis. Whatever the student’s unique situation, learning abilities, or extracurricular activities might be, online education affords students of all backgrounds to succeed academically. Below is a list of five examples:
1. Homeschooled Students
Students in homeschool environments may need additional learning support or may face a challenge if parents cannot serve as learning coaches due to work or other commitments. Online high schools offer an education alternative that can keep students learning at home while receiving instruction from qualified and trained instructors and teachers.
2. Bullied Students
Thirteen million students are bullied nationwide. For students facing uncomfortable or challenging learning environments in traditional settings, online education can offer an alternative—an alternative that allows the student to focus on learning—not being injured or harassed.
3. Gifted and Talented Students
Advanced learners may need highly customized and accelerated curriculum that both challenges them and positions them to maximize their learning potential. Online high school provides an avenue to unlocking those abilities.
4. Students with Health Issues
For students with disabilities or chronic medical issues, attending a brick-and-mortar school may be difficult at best, impossible at worst. Online education opens the door to a flexible learning experience, one that can be customized around medical appointments or needs.
Online High School Sample Curriculum
Many virtual, full-time online high schools adhere to the traditional 180-day calendar offered by campus-based high schools and include state standardized testing. However, students at online high schools have greater flexibility, allowing them to create a learning structure that works within the traditional timeline. Online high schools offer students the opportunity to balance extracurricular activities with a comprehensive curriculum experience.
Online curriculum is designed to mirror its brick-and-mortar school counterpart. Through standards- based coursework, students develop a strong academic foundation that prepares them for both college and career success. Curriculum is divided between an integrated set of core and elective coursework, with AP, honors, and college courses available. Core courses include Language Arts, Science, Mathematics, and Social Studies, while electives include subject such as Foreign Languages, Art History, Music, and Journalism. Many schools also adhere to Common Core State Standards (43 states, including the District of Columbia participate)—standards that establish consistent learning guidelines for students in grades 9–12.
The 9th grade represents a transitional learning year for students, moving from middle school to more advanced tracks of study in high school. Based on state standards, students take classes in English language arts, math, science and social studies.
The 10th grade is another transitional year, when most students begin thinking about their future academic and career plans. Students in 10th grade continue in more advanced courses in the core areas, as well as elective coursework.
The 11th grade year may be focused on preparing students for standardized testing (e.g., taking the PSAT), going to college fairs, and creating a list of potential college programs.
In their final year of high school, students are preparing to graduate, make a decision about college, and take standardized tests, including the ACT and SAT (if they haven’t already done so during their junior year). During this year, students have additional flexibility in their studies and selection of classes, including a wide array of electives (e.g., foreign languages, business math, marine science).
8 Things Your Online High School Should Have
The sheer diversity of online high school instruction means there are different approaches to curriculum, student development and academic instruction. The first step in making a decision about a prospective online high school program is evaluating the needs and future goals of the student and then researching the types of programs that would help the student achieve his or her goals. In order to do so, parents should review a list of criteria, a set of factors that influence the overall quality of schools offering online programs. Below are five points parents should consider before enrolling their son or daughter in a non-traditional high school.
The goal of accreditation is to make sure schools are meeting an acceptable level of quality recognized nationally or regionally. Accreditation also means the online accredited high school is held accountable to an outside agency for academic performance and graduation rates. Most colleges accept only students who have graduated from accredited institutions. Currently, there’s no single nationwide set of accreditation standards in place, which means accreditation is handled on a state and regional basis. Parents should ask the school about their accreditation standing, the accrediting body, and how often accreditation is reviewed and renewed. A starting point to finding accredited schools is AdvancED.org.
For students both transferring into and out of online programs, credit transfers are important. Most secondary institutions will not accept credits from an unaccredited school. Parents should discuss the transfer process with both the school in question and the local school district to ensure credits to be transferred are recognized at other high schools. For parents seeking a peace of mind, some schools offer an enrollment agreement, an agreement that recognizes which credits and completed courses will be honored.
Student support is vital to positive academic outcomes, especially for online students. Parents should review the different types of services available to both students and the parents themselves. Are tutoring services provided by the school? Are students assigned a learning coach to help with the learning process? Are students able to access school counselors? Is a parent network or community available for parents? Does the school have a dedicated staff for student and parent support services?
For online students, particularly those in grades 9–12, social opportunities are especially important when preparing to continue into a college environment. Online instruction requires creative alternatives to socialization as students study independently. Parents should check the socialization opportunities through the prospective school, asking about the types of activities offered (e.g., field trips, clubs), how online instruction can support socialization (e.g., group projects, online collaboration), etc.
Just as in a traditional setting, the quality of the instruction is determined by the teachers and instructors. Prior to making a decision, parents should review the basic qualifications required for teachers to be employed at the school, as well as the hiring practices and trends of the institution (e.g., the teacher turnover rate). Next, parents should ask about the educational and professional backgrounds of the teachers. What types of degrees do they hold? Do they have professional experience in their areas of study? How long have they been teaching? Are teachers required to undergo training or orientation to teach online?
Parents should understand the type of curriculum offered at each grade level and how that curriculum is delivered. Keeping students engaged at the high school learning level is critical and curriculum plays a major role in engagement. Parents should review how each school develops its curriculum, how it aligns to state and national standardized testing processes, how courses are assessed, and how instructors interact and communicate with students.
Colleges consider the quality of the student’s high school when making a determination about acceptance. Some states grade the performance of its high schools (traditional and online), issuing a report card based on graduation rates, student and parent satisfaction, and student outcomes. Other areas to review include graduation rates (compared against traditional school rates in the area) and retention rates (the percentage of students that enroll in the following school year). Taking collectively, each of those items can provide parents with a general understanding of the online school’s academic quality and performance.
Typically, the ultimate goal of a high school program is to prepare students academically and socially to be accepted to a post-secondary institution and to succeed at that institution. College planning entails several factors including the following: 1) Availability of honor, AP, and college preparatory classes; 2) College advisement and counseling; 3) Standardized testing preparation, including ACT and SAT. Students should ask prospective high schools about the various college planning services available and the percentage of students who graduate and are accepted into college programs.
Important ways to help the high school student succeed
For parents of students attending virtual high school, the biggest challenge is often making the learning arrangement work. Parental involvement is crucial in the online learning process as support from parents has been shown to improve both grades and test scores and leads to higher graduation rates. Yet, in high school, the amount of parental involvement diminishes as the student transitions to a greater level of academic independence. Indeed, granting 13 to 18 year-olds greater levels of freedom (and responsibility) affords them the opportunity to hone their personal and time management skills—which are central factors to success at the post-secondary level.
Most parents of online high school students gradually find their involvement is typically limited to the evenings and weekends. Between grades 9 and 12, students begin to tackle more complex subject matter, which means they may spend between five to six hours per day working and studying independently. Secondly, as high school progresses, students traditionally are required to participate in a greater number of synchronous (real-time) class sessions and discussions—creating a much more consistent daily schedule.
The first and most basic point of support is reporting daily attendance to the online school. Beyond that, parents are also responsible for ensuring their student’s assignments, lessons, and tests are completed. For students of prospective online high school students, there are numerous other ways to be a supportive (but not dominating) parent. Three ways to show support include the following:
1. Join a parent network.
Many virtual schools, including statewide schools, offer a network for distance learning students. These networks offer a variety of support sessions, from live events to online training programs, from conferences to workshops. Through these networks, parents have the opportunity to connect with other parents, enhance familiarity with online learning, get advice for working with their student, and—most importantly—be part of community of other parents.
2. Conduct regular school check-ins.
Parents should have regular contact with both the school and instructors. Examples include weekly email communication with teachers or attending parent/teacher conferences to discuss grades and student progress.
3. Use planning tools.
Having an understanding of what the student is studying and when they are studying helps parents monitor their child’s academic progress. Using a family calendar with a daily schedule, lesson plans, and teacher check-ins ensures parents are integrated into the online learning process.
Callout: The balance of technology and personalized learning
Technology has the ability to unlock a greater potential in student learning, including personalized learning opportunities. It’s a powerful tool to assist students and teachers alike to meet those demands. From content management systems to learning platforms, educational software to digital devices, technology offers instructors and educators myriad options to tailor instruction to individual student needs and a data set that can be analyzed to adjust that instruction to student performance.
Students must have ownership in and accountability to determining how they learn, the types of academic goals they wish to achieve, and how digital tools can help them to succeed academically. In turn, a student-centered approach ensures students manage their educational experience and that technology does not become a learning crutch or the focal point of that experience.