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Alternative High Schools: A Call for Better Accountability

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States must find new, fairer ways to hold alternative high schools accountable for graduating their students, according to a new study.

The report, released Friday by the Center for American Progress, argues that it makes little sense to measure the success of alternative schools by the same yardstick—a four-year graduation rate—used for traditional schools.

Under federal law, high schools are required to report the proportion of students who earn regular diplomas in four years. But that's a tough nut to crack for alternative schools, which typically serve students with "little to no chance" of graduating in four years, the new report said.

The Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to identify schools that graduate less than 67 percent of their students in four years, and provide intensive help. But the CAP report argues that those federal methods over-identify alternative schools as failures and under-identify their successes. Flexibility permitted under ESSA allows states to come up with new and better ways to judge alternative schools, the report says.

It's a topic that's getting a new wave of attention. In the past year, papers by University of California-Santa Barbara scholar Russell Rumberger and by the American Youth Policy Forum and Civic Enterprises have explored new ways for states to think about accountability for alternative schools. And the number of alternative schools is growing, fueling a rise in the number of high schools with low graduation rates, so the topic is more salient than ever.  

'Erratic' Pathways for Students

The topic can be confusing, though. When it comes to federal accountability, there isn't one shared definition of "alternative schools." Each state gets to define that for itself. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, on which the CAP report relies, about 17 percent of all public high schools were "alternative" high schools in 2014-15. That's 4,548 schools enrolling 435,088 students. That's 3 percent of all public high school students. A small slice, perhaps; but it's a lot of vulnerable students, with a lot on the line.

Traditional accountability measures presume that students will make smooth, linear progress through school, the CAP report says. But a reasonable approach to evaluation must recognize that many students take an "erratic" pathway, stopping and restarting, or transferring, due to trauma, financial hardship, illness, and other dynamics, the report says.

"The reality ... is that measures like the four-year or six-year graduation rate simply do not do justice to the lived experience of these students," the report says. 

In guiding states to think about new forms of accountability, the paper draws heavily on innovative approaches that New York City has been trying with its "transfer" schools—alternative schools—in the past decade. A study that followed 70,000 New York City students from 2008 through 2014 provides key details that inform the CAP recommendations.

For instance: The study found that for students who have fallen significantly behind in high school, transferring to alternative schools was a better bet than staying in traditional schools. In the New York study, one-eighth of the students had fallen two or more years behind in their first three years of high school. Nearly 30 percent of those who switched to alternative schools earned diplomas in six years. Among those who stayed at traditional schools, only 13 percent did so.

Students tend to arrive at alternative schools late in the game. The New York study showed that fully 55 percent of the students in alternative settings got there during or after their third year of high school. That makes it pretty tough to judge schools by whether their students earn diplomas within four years of when they began high school. 

So what kinds of alternative metrics are good ways to judge alternative schools? Drawing heavily on things New York City has tried, here are some of the CAP recommendations:

  • Take time out of the formula. Don't include in your graduation rate only students who finish in four, five, or six years. Include anyone who earns a regular diploma in a given year, regardless of how long they've been there. In New York, including students who graduated in four years or more created an alternative school graduation rate of 51 percent in 2017, CAP said. Restricting it to four years would have lowered the rate to 24 percent. 
  • Factor in other "positive school completion" outcomes, too, such as enrollment in college, vocational training, or public-service programs.
  • Set clear rules for which school is held accountable when students transfer. When a student transfers, then drops out after a short time, it isn't fair to hold the second school accountable for her graduation. But it's also not fair to hold her original school accountable when she's long gone. Each state needs to establish a reasonable period of enrollment time that defines when a school is responsible for a student's outcome.
  • Change the way you calculate cohorts. Currently, schools define a graduating cohort as the students who enter as freshmen in a given school year. But that's tricky in a school that accepts most of its students long after they're freshmen. They could try a "single-year entry cohort" approach, as New York did, judging alternative schools by how they did with students after three years of enrollment. States could also try creating cohorts based on how many credits students need when they enter. Or they could try an exit cohort: If 60 percent of the students who leave in a given year get diplomas, and 40 percent leave without them, the alternative school's graduation rate for that year is 60 percent.
  • Do the right kinds of peer-group comparisons. Measuring alternative school success could require using a better-matched comparison group. New York created a complex method that allows it to compare outcomes for alternative school students to matched sets of students with similar risk factors. Another idea is to create graduation-rate subgroups: one for students who have been continuously enrolled in one school, another for those who have attended more than one school but are still on track to graduate, and a third for those who are over-age and under-credited. 
  • Offer additional ways to measure academic proficiency. Provide an option for good performance-based assessment, as schools in the New York Performance Standards Consortium have been doing for many years. An important part of that process would be judging all students against shared, rigorous rubrics that reflect state academic standards.
  • Pick the right school-quality indicators. Metrics like improved attendance, grades or credit accumulation, and students' feedback on school climate would incentivize important aspects of learning. 

Mindful that alternative schools serve large populations of low-income and minority students, civil rights advocates have long been wary of accountability changes that would lower expectations for those students.

But CAP argues that well-designed accountability systems for alternative schools would "not condone or hide failure." They would recognize the realities of those schools, and support them as they "embrace students who failed in other settings and give them a genuine second chance to meet rigorous expectations." 


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