A school division with online graduation rates of just 26 per cent last year has been chosen by the Saskatchewan government to standardize online education across the province.
The graduation rates registered by the Sun West School Division's Distance Learning Centre came as a shock to experts interviewed by CBC News.
"Graduation rates are a vital metric. It's what we are aiming for, but that's a low number — so low," said Kelsey Shields, a school principal in Esterhazy, Sask. who recently obtained her doctoral degree in distance education.
The 26 per cent figure refers to those who attended Grade 10 through 12 classes exclusively online and graduated from Sun West's program within the expected three years. They include students located within the division and those from other parts of Saskatchewan.
Sun West's On-Time Graduation Rates From 2016 to 2021
It's one of the province's largest online school hosts, with more than 2,000 students last year.
Over the past five years, Sun West online graduation rates have ranged from a high of 47 per cent in 2017 to a low of 24 per cent in 2019, according to the auditor's report.
Sun West's own stated goal for online "on time" graduation is 60 per cent. The average for in-person learning is 80 per cent.
Shields and others say the provincial government needs to explain why Sun West was selected, and why things are moving ahead so quickly without meaningful consultation.
"I'm surprised to see that. You'd expect it to be higher. If I was the government and I saw those kind of numbers, I'd want to do something about it," said Keith Walke, an education professor at the University of Saskatchewan.
"Why would all this be happening without consultation? That's not Saskatchewan-like."
No one from the provincial Ministry of Education was available for an interview Thursday. In an email, an official said Sun West's distance learning centre is well-established, but they are aware of the concerns raised in the auditor's report.
They say they've consulted with every school division and will continue to speak with a wide range of education experts.
"Sun West School Division's DLC was selected because it is a well-established operation with skilled staff, robust technology, and a wealth of courses to provide a ready-made foundation for the centralized model. It will allow all students across the province access to any course offered by the new online school, regardless of where they live," the official said in an email.
Saskatchewan Teachers Federation president Samantha Becotte says the government has not consulted with them and has some explaining to do before it goes any further. She says the government should delay plans to roll out the system for the upcoming school year until it answers questions about the low graduation rate and other issues.
"There's many people who have a stake in this, and we want to make sure that we get it right for students so that they can be successful in their education system," she said.
In an interview, provincial auditor Tara Clemett said Sun West has done some good things, but the low graduation rate is a concern.
"They need to figure out how to keep people engaged when they're only doing online learning, for sure. Again, good model in place [but] I do think they can obviously enhance and do better," she said.
Clemett said that most students selected in a sampling for her audit did not receive proper supervision or follow up. The division also did not effectively track student progress or success rates. She also pointed out some Sun West courses have not been updated in more than a decade.
As well, Clemett says, computer systems must be upgraded to identify teachers who are "critically behind in grading."