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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

"Alternative" Education: What's the Definition?

NACSA Senior Policy Advisor Nelson Smith (center, right) leads a
 March 2013 working group on alternative education at PCSB

More than a dozen charter policymakers, authorizers and school leaders from around the country recently met at PCSB to discuss how to best measure the performance of schools that enroll primarily students who face unusually high risks for academic failure.

Maybe they got pregnant and dropped out. Perhaps they fell behind in school and are now several grades below level. Maybe they went to jail, or missed many days of school because they bounced from one foster home to another, or faced some other issue that has made their education anything but a straight path.

The two-day event was sponsored by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), the membership organization for groups around the country that have the power to open, close and oversee charter schools. PCSB hosted the event at its offices and PCSB Deputy Director Naomi DeVeaux participated to give the perspective on the issue for DC.

Nelson Smith, NACSA Senior Advisor, said charter authorizers from around the country have reached out trying to find guidance on the issue of measuring these schools not just with proficiency rates on test scores. The challenge was to find a different way, one that accurately identifies quality “alternative” schools that does not create low expectations for what the schools’ students could accomplish.

“We heard from so many members who were looking for models,” Smith said. “So we thought why not bring people together?”

Tony Simmons, of the High School for the Recording Arts in St. Paul, Minnesota, said his state had no official designation for “alternative” but that one was needed. The school targets older students who have struggled to learn. He said it could be in trouble of being shut down, as the state follows federal guidelines that call for at least 60 percent of ninth grade students who started high school together to graduation in four years. The school -- and many like it that choose to engage dropouts and/or students who are severely academically behind -- will not be able to meet a graduation rate of 60 percent in four years.

Simmons said just knowing he wasn’t the only charter operator grappling with the issue was helpful.  “You learn from what other states are doing, you hear some of the struggles and you can take it back,” Simmons said.

So what to do?  Among the approaches the working group discussed:  Using five-, six-, or even seven-year graduation rates; using re-enrollment and attendance rates to show re-engagement or using a norm-referenced test to measure student’s progress mastering content far below the current grade level standards. Smith said the working group plans to hold two more sessions on the topic.

PCSB has been wrestling with this issue and is already considering adding different graduation rates into our Performance Management Framework (PMF). (The PMF already includes re-enrollment and attendance rates.)

Like the St. Paul, Minnesota school, our schools in DC would be at risk of closure because they are rated as a “focus” or “priority” school under federal guidelines. PCSB passed an interim policy last April to address the issue, but we’ll be looking for a permanent solution in the months ahead.

For more on “alternative” schools, check out the following links:



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Tuesday, March 05, 2013

High Schools as “Dropout Factories”: Fact or Fiction?

There’s been some increased focus as of late on “dropout factories,” a term that refers to high schools that do not graduate a significant portion of their students. U.S. Secretary for Education Arne S. Duncan appeared last month with Alma Powell and America’s Promise, which is working on the issue of high school completion.

Then comes a recent Washington Examiner article on “Dropout Factories” that cites a report by the Alliance for Excellent Education saying, “The number of ‘dropout factory’ high schools in the District has shot up in the past decade, defying state trends nationwide.”

The piece went on to state that DC had 13 “dropout factories” in 2011 and in 2010, of which five were DC charter schools.  

Here’s the problem: Dropout factory is defined as a school with a graduating class less than 60% the size of the freshman class. So if students transfer from the school, and graduate from somewhere else, they are still counted as a “dropout” under this crude measure -- unless the school fills that transferring student’s seat with another student.

This measure has long been supplanted by a more sophisticated way of measuring dropouts, known as the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate.  Under ACGR, which is now the national standard for measuring graduation rates, a student who transfers out is not counted as a dropout if there is documentation that the student enrolled in another high school

According to the outdated way of measuring high school graduation rates, which five charter schools in 2010 qualified as “dropout factories?” Kamit PCS; William E Doar, Jr. PCS;  IDEA PCS; Cesar Chavez Capitol Hill PCS and Thurgood Marshall PCS.

Let’s take a moment to review the record on each of those:

  • Kamit was closed by PCSB for poor academic performance.
  • William E. Doar, Jr. voluntarily closed their high school for poor academic performance.
  • IDEA PCS is executing a turnaround plan after a threatened closure by PCSB.  The school’s graduation rate in 2012 was 78 percent  using ACGR  - 17 percentage points higher than the DC average.
  • Cesar Chavez Capitol Hill had a 2012 graduation rate of 64 percent - far too low, but higher than the DC average.
  • Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS has a 2012 graduation rate of 78 percent - again, 17 percentage points higher than the DC average.

In sum, the article uses outdated data and methodology to claim that there are five charter school “dropout factories” in DC.    Indeed a review of 2012 graduation rates for all DC high schools shows that there are just two charter schools with graduation rates below the state average of 61 percent. Meanwhile, charter school graduation rates in DC are 77 percent.  Far from being “dropout factories”, DC charter high schools are raising graduation rates across the city.


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