The federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which was recently signed into law by President Obama, aims to offer states more flexibility in designing K-12 accountability programs than they had under No Child Left Behind.
But one of the law’s lesser-known provisions – a requirement that states identify and assist high schools with graduation rates below 67 percent – might force California to revise the way it deals with graduation rates at alternative high schools.
Currently, the California Department of Education (CDE) excludes students attending most of the 640 alternative high schools across the state from its graduation rate calculations.
Alternative schools – also known as district continuation schools, county community schools and district and charter alternative “schools of choice” – are designed to help dropouts, students with behavior problems, pregnant or parenting teens, and truants.
About 75 percent of the students at alternative high schools are juniors and seniors, according to state data.
Graduation rates in California have been calculated based on each school’s 9th grade enrollment and the number of graduates four years later. The new federal law requires states to calculate “cohort” graduation rates, which tracks students from 9th through 12th grade and assigns students to the last school they attended.
But the cohort graduation rate means something different at alternative schools than it does for regular schools. Students often transfer to alternative schools because they are struggling in school. They attend alternative schools for an average of less than four months, according to state data. The data do not indicate whether students return to their home high school, drop out, or transfer to a different alternative school.
Even so, the state assigns students who transfer to alternative schools to those schools’ cohorts.
Since the state does not calculate graduation rates for most alternative schools, 59,300 high school seniors, or 12 percent of the Class of 2014, are excluded from a school’s graduation data. That is, these students are not included in an individual school’s graduation rate. They are usually included in their districts’ overall graduation rates (unless they transferred to a county or charter alternative school).
There are two main options for including all students in California’s school graduation rates.
First, graduation rates for alternative schools could be published, although it is likely that their rates would be much lower than those of regular schools, and would fall below the federal law’s 67 percent threshold.
According to PPIC calculations using state data, alternative school graduation rates average about 37 percent, far below the statewide rate of 81 percent.
The problem with this option is that, given the role alternative schools play in helping at-risk students, these low rates do not necessarily mean that alternative schools are underperforming.
A better option is to include most alternative school students in the graduation rates of their “home” high schools. After all, students generally spend most of their high school years at their regular high school, attending alternative schools for short spells.
Exactly how the calculation would be done would take some thinking through. For example, alternative school students who have only spent a small amount of time in their home high schools should arguably not be included in the revised graduation rate.
But it is clear that the current policy of excluding a large proportion of at-risk students from the calculation of school graduation rates does not accurately represent the performance of the state’s high schools. Our estimate using 2013-14 data shows that this option would reduce “regular” high school graduation rates an average of 6 percent.
The state’s current graduation rate methodology appears to be at odds with the federal approach to accountability because a large number of at-risk high school seniors would be excluded from the minimum graduation rate test of the Every Student Succeeds Act.
It also makes it more difficult for educators, parents and other interested community members to get accurate information about the success of local schools. Moreover, the methodology creates an incentive for educators to send low-performing students to alternative schools.
For these reasons, the new requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act should prompt the California Department of Education to revisit this issue.
Paul Warren is a research associate with the Public Policy Institute of California, where he focuses on K-12 education finance and accountability. He previously worked for the California Legislative Analyst’s Office and the California Department of Education.
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