California is revamping its school accountability program. In 2015, the State Board of Education signaled its intent to retire the Academic Performance Index (API). It will now base future school and district accountability on a range of performance indicators that are part of Local Control and Accountability Plans (LCAPs). The board has not yet discussed whether its plans include special accommodations for alternative schools.
One purpose of school accountability programs is to shine a light on the strengths and weaknesses of our schools. Yet our understanding of these schools remains extremely limited. In fact, the state risks making major missteps in developing new policies if they are based on what we currently know. This moment gives us a critical opportunity to keep that from happening.
In California, “alternative school” refers to a set of schools that provide different educational settings for students who are “at risk” because they have dropped out, are pregnant or parenting, exhibit behavior problems, or need an alternative schedule to accommodate outside work. The relationship between alternative and regular schools is complex, but the two generally should be viewed as different components of a single process.
Alternative schools educate a significant number of students. For example, they served almost 300,000 mostly high school juniors and seniors in 2013-14. About 12 percent of all seniors finished 12th grade at an alternative school. Only about 37% of these seniors graduated. In order to better understand such outcomes, and to promote the success of this important population, we need performance metrics that take into account both alternative and regular schools.
But many state outcome indicators do a poor job at measuring alternative school students’ progress. They primarily reflect the at-risk status of most students when they arrive. Moreover, students generally stay for a short time-less than half a school year on average-and annual data cannot accurately measure the gains they make. Yet policy makers, educators, parents, and the public need good information on the success of the system and determine how best to support state and local efforts to improve the quality of these schools.
To create stronger local incentives for focusing on the needs of students, we think it makes sense to hold both the regular and the alternative schools accountable. Regular schools should account for student success while they attend an alternative school. This would generate performance data unaffected by district policies regarding alternative schools. It would also promote stronger ties between schools so the needs of at-risk students are addressed most effectively.
Alternative schools should also be accountable. To accomplish that goal, the state needs to develop better short- and long-term measures of alternative school performance. It also requires the state to better identify which schools are actually alternative in the sense that they provide mostly short-term services to students who are at risk of dropping out or not graduating from high school.