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Better Ways to Judge How Alternative High Schools Perform

Standard measures of accountability don't capture the progress made by students who have struggled at traditional schools.

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"If you're doing bad, we gotta take you out because you're bringing us down." Ana is a student at an alternative high school in Brooklyn. Her remarks reflect the way she, as a student who struggled, was treated like a bad statistic at her previous high school. She was encouraged to leave and enrolled at an alternative school that serves students like her, taking in these "bad statistics" and giving them extra supports to meet their unique challenges. Yet rather than being recognized for producing better outcomes for these students, alternative schools are often judged by state education departments and local school districts to be failing.

Are they truly failing, or do we just not measure alternative schools the way we should?

Our research on the outcomes of students in alternative schools turned up some startling numbers. If students who fell significantly behind in their first years of high school stayed in traditional high schools, about 13 percent graduated after six years. But if they transferred into alternative schools, their graduation rates improved to almost 30 percent.

While that's a huge gain, if all we considered were graduation rates 30 percent would appear abysmal. However, a traditional graduation rate fails to capture the challenges that students overcome and successes they achieve. Some students arrive at alternative high schools at a fourth-grade reading level and learn how to read well enough to function as adults. Others enter alternative high schools struggling with anxiety and depression and learn how to believe in their own potential.

No statistic can fully measure these triumphs. But statistics can do a far better job than they currently do of identifying the progress made by students in alternative schools.

In fact, there is an opportunity to rethink accountability measures under the Every Student Succeeds Act. The federal law requires states to establish systems to measure the performance of all public schools and provides leeway in relation to alternative schools. Too few states have adequately taken advantage of this leeway. Our research shows how they can.

First, consider graduation rates. Traditionally, they are calculated as the percentage of students who receive a diploma a set period (usually four years) after they first enrolled in high school. But students transfer into alternative high schools at different times and achieve progress that may take longer. States can devise graduation calculations based on the year when a student first enrolled in an alternative school, counting every diploma received even if it takes longer than four years and including additional outcomes that indicate engagement in meaningful pathways to future success, such as attainment of a high-school equivalency diploma or enrollment in national service.

Second, instead of looking only at standardized tests, states can use performance-based assessments to measure academic achievement and the progress students are making. States could include important factors such as attendance growth and credit accumulation, as well as assessments of school climate.

And finally, because alternative schools serve a very different population than traditional public schools, states could compare the outcomes of students in alternative schools to similar groups of students -- either current or historical peer groups.

To be clear, alternative schools, like all schools, are of varying levels of quality. It is critical to ensure that we are not lowering the bar, expecting less of these schools, but rather painting a more accurate picture with measures appropriate to students who have followed a tortuous path. All students -- regardless of the type of school they attend -- should have the opportunity to graduate ready for postsecondary education and the workplace. We must take pains to ensure that schools that enroll disadvantaged students who were once far from this outcome are not punished for taking them in, but instead assessed with methods that hold them accountable for making meaningful progress once they do.

Our education system needs high-quality schools that protect and support students who fell behind in other schools. Alternative high schools provide a vital role in the education system by intentionally reaching these students. By carefully considering how to measure these schools, states and local school districts can do a better job of holding them accountable for supporting the students who need them most.

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