The State Board of Education took initial steps at its May meeting toward developing accountability measures for alternative schools. These schools serve mostly high school juniors and seniors who leave their regular school because of behavioral or academic problems. About 300,000 students attended an alternative school in 2013‒14. In my 2016 report, Accountability for California’s Alternative Schools, I found that indicators used for the state’s main accountability program can misrepresent the successes of alternative schools. Students generally stay in alternative schools for a short time—less than half a school year on average—and annual data cannot accurately measure the gains they make. The board created a task force in 2016 to identify better measures of performance for these schools. At its May meeting, it took action to define which schools may participate in the alternative accountability program.
The board decided to exclude alternative students from district-level data in the state’s new K-12 “dashboards” while the alternative system is being developed. The dashboards report school and district performance on key indicators in the state’s accountability system, using colors to signify relative outcomes. Blue signals high performance, followed by green, yellow, and orange. Red indicates the lowest rank.
The dashboards also exclude charter school students. But excluding certain students from district performance assessments gives a rosier picture of student outcomes, which can lead to an inaccurate picture of district progress. In my 2014 report, Designing California’s Next School Accountability Program, I found that accountability programs rely on valid comparisons across schools and districts—after all, one way to understand performance is to compare how well students are doing across similar schools or districts.
The chart illustrates that excluding alternative and charter school students affects some district results significantly. The light blue reflect data used in the state dashboards. The dark blue bars use district data that include all students, as reported in the state department’s data portal (known as Dataquest). The chart shows that graduation rates for some of the state’s ten largest K‒12 districts look significantly higher in the dashboard data than in the data representing all students. The dashboard graduation rate in four districts—Fresno, Long Beach, Los Angeles and San Bernardino—is at least 5% higher than the actual district graduation rate.
The board’s policy can make the dashboard data misleading. For instance, Long Beach Unified achieves a graduation rate of 89.3% using the dashboard data, receiving a “green” rating. San Diego and San Francisco also are ranked as green. But when all students are included in the rates, Long Beach’s graduation rate falls to 84.2%, which would give it a yellow ranking, while San Diego and San Francisco would retain their green rating.
It’s good news that the board is taking steps to create an alternative accountability system, but it’s important to understand that for now, many students are excluded from district dashboard data. That’s significant information for parents and the public to know when using the dashboard to evaluate a district’s performance.
Read the report Accountability for California’s Alternative Schools