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How to Measure the Progress of 'Alternative' Charters

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Measuring the progress of "alternative" charter schools is challenging and ill-defined in most places, according to a new report by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. 

Compared to regular schools, alternative schools—defined here as those that serve students who have dropped out, pregnant teen-agers, students who have a history of delinquency or substance abuse, English-language learners, and other at-risk student populations—often have lower rates of graduation and attendance and lower proficiency scores. But those measurements simply do not tell the full story of students in these schools, says the report.

But how should charter authorizers determine whether these schools, while serving more-challenging populations, are still performing to the best of their ability and providing a meaningful and successful education for those students? 

This paper grew out of a working group convened specifically to answer that question. And although the report gives no clear-cut, easy answer, it does lay out several recommendations for charter school authorizers to ensure alternative charters are creating a healthy and successful education environment for their students. 

One recommendation is that charter schools' contracts with their authorizers need to be comprehensive and clear, explaining exactly what kinds of data the school should be collecting and how it will be used to measure the school's performance, says the report. There should be several measures of performance for evaluating the progress of the school included in the contract with the weight of each one listed.

In addition, 'short-cycle' assessments are a key part of measuring the success of these schools, as the populations of students they are serving may not have a continuous learning path that provides meaningful longitudinal data. 

The report also recommends measuring and giving schools credit for re-engaging dropouts, even if they don't graduate in four years. 

In addition, the paper provides detailed explanations of what charter authorizers should look for in the application process, how to monitor these schools, what they should look for in the school's budget, what to consider when it's time to renew the charter, and how to explain the school's progress to the public, with many examples of how states are doing some of this work.

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