Rethinking Accountability for Alternative High Schools

Jan 07, 2019

The Problems with Applying Traditional Performance Ratings to Alternative Schools

Alternative high schools serve a vital role in improving outcomes for students, particularly for those students who are most at risk. 

While there isn’t a uniform definition for “alternative,” the term typically describes a school that primarily serves students who have not been successful in a traditional environment. Alternative high schools often receive students with cumulative academic deficits and take on the vital work of helping students prepare for opportunities after high school. 

How Effective are Alternative High Schools?

Given the key role of alternative schools, it’s essential to ask how effective they are in providing high-quality education to students. One would expect to find the answer by reviewing the state’s school accountability ratings. After all, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires states to provide uniform information about school quality and performance for all public schools in the state. 

However, there’s a problem. Alternative schools almost always wind up in the lowest performance categories of the state system. A low rating for all alternative schools can only be interpreted in one of two ways: all alternative schools in the state are, in fact, performing very poorly; or, the accountability model does not fit these schools very well. I find the latter more persuasive, and,increasingly, state education leaders are reaching the same conclusion. 

The Challenge of Applying Traditional Rating to Alternative High Schools

Why might traditional ratings be ill-suited for alternative high schools? 

  • ESSA systems heavily weight proficiency on state tests and four-year graduation rates. However, the reason many students attend alternative high schools in the first place is precisely because they’ve fallen behind academically and are at risk of not graduating on time. It’s both unsurprising and uninformative to report low ratings based on these factors.
  • Alternative high schools often experience higher rates of student mobility. When students move in and out more frequently, traditional “business rules” for calculating indicators may not fit well, which can create a situation where an indicator with substantial weight is based on a relatively small and/or unrepresentative group.   
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the indicators used in traditional systems may not be well-aligned to the supports that are most important to incentivize in alternative high schools.

The Purposes of Accountability

The central purpose of any school accountability system should be to help improve educational outcomes for all students. While a full discussion of how to leverage the promise of accountability is beyond the scope of a single blog post, two primary factors are worth highlighting.  

First, system design can incentivize actions that improve opportunities to learn and help students achieve important outcomes.  For example, when an accountability system gives schools credit for helping students earn a diploma in an extended time frame, that credit provides an extra incentive for a school to focus resources on students who continue to work toward graduation after four years. Similarly, when a system rewards participation in courses or programs that prepare students for post-secondary success (e.g. coursework leading to industry certification), students often receive additional chances to develop knowledge and skills critical to post-secondary success.  

Second, accountability systems can provide signals to guide evaluation of policies and initiatives. For example, leaders and policymakers can use accountability system results to determine whether supplemental educational services are effective, or if a particular approach to professional development seems promising.  

Rethinking Alternative Accountability 

Given the distinctiveness of alternative schools, it’s important to design a system that not only reflects the unique features of alternative schools, but also clarifies the conditions and mechanisms for achieving improved outcomes. This approach is best explicated in a theory of action specified at a level sufficient to produce a series of falsifiable claims.  Putting these claims to the test provides information about both the credibility of the theory and the efficacy of the interventions.  

Designing effective accountability solutions for alternative high schools is NOT about creating a less rigorous version of the state’s existing system. Rather, it involves creating a distinctive system that reflects the outcomes and mechanisms judged to be most effective for these unique schools.

Promising Practice: Wyoming 

Wyoming Senate Enrolled Act (SEA) 87 called for revisions to the Wyoming Accountability in Education Act (WAEA) to include the establishment of a separate alternative school accountability system.  

State education leaders responded by empaneling an advisory group comprising alternative school leaders along with broad group of experts and advocates. Working with the Center for Assessment, the advisory group developed a framework for the new system, and then conducted a multi-year pilot to evaluate the initial design and inform refinements and improvements to the system. The new system was finalized in the fall of 2018.  

Wyoming’s alternative accountability system includes indicators that overlap with the general model, as well distinctive elements. Some overlapping indicators have been adapted to better reflect the priorities identified by the advisory group.  For example, the alternative system emphasizes progress toward proficiency using a performance index, and substantially weights academic growth. Distinctive elements include a climate survey and credit for implementing individual Student Success Plans. These latter elements were selected in part to promote an environment characterized by personalized support and mentoring, seen as crucial to helping students reach their post-secondary goals.    

The new model helps leaders and stakeholders differentiate between schools that are more or less effective at preparing students for post-secondary success. While some schools still receive feedback that indicates performance is below expectations, the ratings are seen as fairer and more useful to inform improvement planning. And the fact that some schools are recognized as meeting or exceeding expectations provides evidence that while the performance goals may be ambitious, they are attainable.      

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

There is no one “right way” to design an accountability system. The system must be pegged to the prioritized goals and outcomes, and must take into account the context and characteristics of the schools. What may work well in one context may be poorly suited for another. The Wyoming case provides a great example of a process that included mechanisms to: 

  1. elicit input from a diverse group of experts and stakeholders
  2. develop and document policy priorities
  3. pilot and fine-tune the system before fully operationalizing it    

Ultimately, both the process and the product are vital. A thoughtful process can help state leaders develop appropriately-customized accountability solutions for alternative schools that make the most of their role in a system that improves outcomes for all students.  

One size doesn’t fit all. It’s time to rethink accountability for alternative schools.