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Rethinking Accountability for Alternative Schools

By Kerstin Le Floch, April 23, 2024

Alternative schools serve students who are not thriving in traditional school settings and often face academic challenges. Students in alternative schools may be several years below grade level and have experienced disrupted schooling leading to struggles with academic achievement. 

In late 2023, the Region 9 Comprehensive Center (R9CC) provided support to the Iowa Department of Education’s At-Risk Taskforce, developed as a result of Senate File 560. R9CC provided experts to share research and evidence-based information on effective evaluation practices and metrics, alternative schooling accountability and policy considerations, and economic evaluation and cost effectiveness considerations. Our support informed their discussions on measuring the effectiveness of their at-risk, dropout prevention, and alternative schooling programs, to make decisions on how to best support students who are at-risk.

Public school accountability systems are designed to distinguish between schools that are high and low performing so that the latter can receive support and improve. However, accountability systems that rely heavily on measures of academic achievement might not do a great job identifying alternative schools that are helping their students get back on track, versus those that are neglecting students.

Alternative schools serve a critical role.

Alternative schools are the last guardrail in school systems that have too often failed students in the most precarious educational circumstances. These specialized schools take on the challenge of educating students who are not thriving in traditional school settings. Alternative schools enroll students who face a variety of challenges, which could include mental health concerns, substance abuse, traumatic events, pregnancy, interaction with the juvenile justice system, or other serious events that interrupt—and risk derailing—their academic trajectory. In many cases, the alternative schools provide a welcoming, supportive environment that enables these students to gain confidence, make up lost ground, and graduate from high school. On the other hand, some alternative schools have a troubling history of neglect as evidenced by recent reports and lawsuits.

For the sake of these students – who have faced so many challenges – we need to know which alternative schools are doing a good job, and which are falling short

This is precisely the role of school accountability systems: to inform the public about which schools are doing well and importantly, which are not. Federal law requires states to do this. The Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, mandates that each state measure school performance and identify the very lowest-performing schools for “comprehensive support and improvement,” or CSI. These schools then receive attention, support, and resources to help them improve.

For accountability systems to accomplish their intended purpose, they must accurately identify the schools that fail to meet students’ needs. Herein lies the challenge when it comes to alternative schools. These schools, by virtue of their mission, serve students who are behind academically. To comply with ESSA, states have structured their accountability systems in ways that rely heavily on student achievement in reading and math. Not surprisingly, in some states, a high percentage of CSI schools are alternative schools – nearly 40% of CSI schools in both California and Florida, for example.

Does this mean that these alternative schools are failing their students? Not necessarily. A more plausible explanation is that accountability systems are not designed to distinguish between effective and ineffective alternative schools. For example, if an alternative school enrolls students who are well below grade level in reading but helps them gain two grade levels in just one school year, we would probably count this as a win. Or if teachers in an alternative school make a connection with a kid who would have otherwise dropped out, this is also a win, even if the student needs extra time to graduate. But in both cases, an alternative school might be identified as CSI because it enrolls a high percentage of students who are below grade level, or do not graduate in 4 years – both of which are important accountability indicators under ESSA.

For example, if an alternative school enrolls students who are well below grade level in reading but helps them gain two grade levels in just one school year, we would probably count this as a win.

But some states are taking a different approach.

The state legislatures of Arizona, California, Colorado, Louisiana, Nevada, and North Carolina, and others have mandated the development of modified accountability measures for alternative schools. (See, for example, A.R.S. §15-241 in Arizona or SB 09-163 in Colorado.) Drawing on community engagement as well as the experts’ insight, state officials have refined accountability indicators that are better aligned with alternative schools’ mission, including measures of:

  • Student persistence: Because students in alternative schools are at greater risk of dropping out, keeping kids in school is a priority. North Carolina measures the percentage of students who remain enrolled in any NC public school through the end of the school year.
  • Alternate timelines for graduation: Given the academic disruptions faced by students in alternative schools, graduating in four years is often simply not realistic. California calculates a 1-year graduation rate, which reflects the percentage of 11th or 12th grade students in an alternative school who graduate within one year. Arizona allocates points based on alternative schools’ 4-, 5-, 6-, and 7-year graduation rates.
  • Emphasis on student growth: While traditional school accountability systems emphasize student proficiency in reading and math, modified systems for alternative schools allocate much more weight to how much students learn (or grow) in a given school year. For example, North Carolina’s modified system weights academic growth as 60% of the overall accountability rating, compared to 20% for academic achievement.
  • Planning for success: Many states with modified accountability systems credit schools in which students are taking steps to plan for their future after high school. Arizona credits students that earn an industry credential, pass an AP exam, or complete the FAFSA. 

To be clear, states that adopt these modified accountability systems must include all schools when identifying CSI schools under ESSA accountability. ED made it clear that California could not use its modified accountability system in place of ESSA accountability for alternative schools. But states can use both systems and leverage multiple platforms for communication to share information more tailored to alternative schools’ mission. 

What’s next for states that want to rethink accountability for alternative schools? 

Webinar: Supporting Students Transitioning from Alternative School Settings 


Hear from students attending an alternative high school, members of the Region 9 Advisory Board, and experts from the National Center for Safe and Supportive Learning Environments (NCSSLE).

  1. Dig into your data: has your state identified a disproportionate number of alternative schools? If so, for which indicators? Do these schools share any common characteristics?
  2. Provide an opportunity for community members, students, and teachers to share their perspectives on the quality of the educational experience – this can point to gaps in measurement.
  3. Investigate other measurement systems focused on alternative schools, including those of other states or of organizations such as the National Dropout Prevention Center. By thoughtfully investigating new measures, innovative states can advance policy in ways that can ultimately promote improvement in alternative schools. 

Kerstin Carlson Le Floch is a managing researcher at AIR, specializing in school improvement, state accountability policies, and Title I implementation. She has conducted studies of Title I policy and accountability systems throughout her two decades at AIR. Dr. Le Floch supports Region 9’s accountability system related work across the region.