State board rethinking how to measure performance of alternative schools

May 25, 2017

State law recognizes that schools primarily serving expelled students, dropouts and students who had trouble coping in traditional schools should be held accountable for academic performance – but by different measurements.

This month, the State Board of Education began a more than year-long process to determine what those metrics should be, which schools should be measured by them and how the schools should fit into the larger system of accountability and school improvement the board is designing.

Finding a solution could be tough. Studies have concluded that, through fits and starts over the past two decades, the state has failed to compile useful data on schools serving students who are among those struggling most. They include disproportionate numbers of foster youth, African-American and Latino students.

“These schools are often the last-ditch effort to help kids who have fallen through the cracks. It’s where kids with significant credit deficiencies, who have had expulsions and suspensions, have ended up,” said Rob Manwaring, senior policy and fiscal adviser to the nonprofit Children Now.

Known as “alternative schools,” they include county schools in juvenile halls, county community schools serving expelled students, and district continuation and community day schools. They are often co-located on school campuses, and serve students who’ve fallen far behind academically or had behavior problems. Mostly small high schools, their numbers fluctuate yearly and currently number 800.** However, some charter schools say they serve similar students without a formal alternative school status.

Enrollment numbers are imprecise, because many students come after the enrollment census in October and leave throughout the year. Some return to their former high school; some stop coming. A report this year by the research nonprofit Policy Analysis for California Education said numbers suggest 10 percent of students enrolled in an alternative high school at some point between 10th and 12th grades. The proportion of 12th-graders may be as high as 1 in 8.

In terms of accountability, alternative schools have been on and off the radar since 2003, when the Legislature created the Academic Performance Index, or API, measuring school performance on standardized tests. The state board exempted from state sanctions those schools with low API scores that were eligible for an alternative school accountability system. The board understood then, as the current board recognizes now, that alternative schools shouldn’t be evaluated on test scores of students who arrive at their doors already far behind. Many students don’t attend long enough to be measured for annual gains.

The state board established 14 alternative measures for the alternative schools, encompassing students’ behavior, attendance, achievement and course completion. But as researcher Paul Warren observed in his 2016 report for the Public Policy Institute of California, schools got to pick and choose the metrics, complicating school comparisons, and the federal government rejected non-test measurements under the No Child Left Behind Act. As part of budget cuts in 2010, the state stopped funding data collection for other metrics.

This year, the state board excluded alternative schools from the new school accountability dashboard that it applied to districts, and traditional and charter schools. The dashboard’s performance indicators include annual test scores, graduation and suspension rates, and the progress of English learners in learning English. They soon will include chronic absenteeism and college and career readiness. Most alternative schools would score low on these measures, if they could be applied at all. For instance, although the California Department of Education doesn’t calculate alternative school graduation rates, Warren estimated that it was 37 percent in 2013-14.

But the state board’s goal is to establish a comprehensive accountability system that satisfies state law and the federal Every Student Succeeds Act for all schools. So over the next 15 months, the board will decide whether and how to tailor measures of student engagement, academic achievement, and college and career readiness to meet the needs of alternative schools and their students.

More relevant, useful metrics

In the analysis for Policy Analysis for California Education, researchers Jorge Ruiz de Velasco and Daisy Gonzales suggested options: rates of GED completion and enrollment in community colleges as proxies for college and career readiness; sustained daily attendance and student punctuality in lieu of chronic absenteeism; and, instead of four-year graduation rates, a one-year rate measuring alternative schools’ impact on helping 12th-graders get a diploma.

Because of the high numbers of student transiency, some states hold alternative schools accountable for improvement but not for absolute standards of performance, they note. Warren suggests monthly measures for performance.

“We embrace accountability for things that we can actually impact,” said Roger Rice, deputy superintendent of student services for the Ventura County Office of Education and a member of a new statewide task force that will advise the state board on alternative schools. Examples, he said, might be measuring schools’ effect on high school credit remediation, attendance in community colleges and the transition back to school districts.

What the state board should avoid, he said, is a narrow list of identical metrics for traditional and alternative schools “for the sake of comparability.”

Children Now and the nonprofit EdVoice say that the board must go further in integrating alternative schools into district accountability instead of treating them as separate systems. They argue – and researchers Warren and Ruiz de Velasco agree – that test scores of most students in alternative schools should be counted for the students’ originating schools. The state board adopted this policy for a few years before eliminating the API in 2014.

“Regular schools need to include data on almost all students who attend alternative schools so that regular schools have a stake in their success,” Warren wrote. “Making alternative schools entirely accountable for these students places too much responsibility on them and too little on the regular high schools.”

“These kids should still be part of the district and part of the school that sent them,” said Manwaring of Children Now.

Shift in thinking

In discussing moving forward with a new framework for accountability at the board’s May 10 meeting, board member Sue Burr said perspectives toward alternative schools have changed dramatically since 2003, “when we were in the midst of zero tolerance” following the student killings at Columbine High School and “no reluctance to assign students to alternative schools.”

The board has adopted different policies, with a goal of reducing suspensions, she said, and test scores are no longer the sole focus of measuring achievement.

Board member Bruce Holaday said that students in alternative schools “need all the help they can get. One way we can help with this is by creating this accountability system not as a way of distinguishing these schools from traditional schools and charter schools, but by providing them with the right kind of data that will help them with their continuous improvement.”

Before deciding which data to collect, the board first must determine the criteria for qualifying as an alternative school. Under the 2003 rules, juvenile court schools, county community schools and continuation schools automatically qualify. So do schools where at least 70 percent of students were expelled, are pregnant, have dropped out or showed behavior problems.

The Department of Education is recommending the board consider adding three additional criteria: students who are one year or more behind in credits needed to graduate, students who have been out of school for the previous 90 days and students who have enrolled in four or more schools during high school.

The state board is expected to decide eligibility criteria at its July or September board meeting.

** An earlier version of the story put the number at 927, which is the number of high schools that meet the statutory requirements of an alternative school. Currently only 800 are active, according to the California Department of Education. 

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