National association: Use contract as vehicle to measure alternative charters

National association: Use contract as vehicle to measure alternative charters

Accountability measures for “alternative” charter schools need to be carefully worked out as part of their authorization contracts, with additional evaluation measures clearly laid out to go along with traditional performance indicators, according to a new report from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

Alternative charters, generally among the lowest performing schools in any state, are by definition those that specialize in educating students who have dropped out of the regular school system, have become immersed in the juvenile justice system or have histories of substance abuse or other social issues that disrupted their education.

But because these charters serve such a complex and demanding population, a research team from the charter authorization organization argues that it is unfair to apply the same evaluation matrix used for all other schools.

“The reality of alternative charters is that their students typically do not perform at the same level as their peers on standard measures of achievement,” the report’s authors said. “The schools often use different approaches to time, course completion, and graduation requirements than those that serve mainstream students. On all of the typical measures used in state accountability systems – such as proficiency rates, four-year adjusted cohort graduation rates, attendance, and even re-enrollment rates –alternative schools will often compare poorly to schools serving traditional populations.”

The report noted that few states have developed a “coherent policy” for identifying alternative charters and then measuring their performance. As a result, districts that have authorized alternative schools have little choice but to either apply an unfair performance measurement or not impose any accountability evaluation at all.

“Acting in this void, an authorizer may lack evidence to show that a dropout-recovery school is doing solid work despite low proficiency scores on the state tests,” the report said. “And an authorizer who suspects that another such school is just an academic waiting room where no learning is happening doesn’t have the consistent, coherent evidence needed to shut it down.”

The association offered two key recommendations:

Use the charter contract as an instrument of accountability.

When alternative measures are used, they must be written into the contract in clear, unambiguous, measurable terms, agreed to by both the school and authorizer. The school should understand what data must be collected and reported, whether on an annual basis or more frequently.

Additional evaluation measures do not replace traditional standard measures.

Instead, they said, additional measures should be used to supplement the picture with qualitative and mission-specific data. This is both a nod to reality and a step toward maintaining for all students the standards and expectations embodied in the state’s accountability system.

The research team also looked at how some of the traditional measures could be revised to better evaluate the mission of alternative charters.

The use of dropout rates, for instance, is typically limited to a narrow period of years – students who have been out of their ninth grade cohort for more than a year or two are not reflected in the graduation rate of a dropout recovery school.

“This makes little sense, especially given how badly the odds are stacked against the student who drops out,” they pointed out. “A study by the education research lab WestEd found that although nearly one-third of dropouts try going back to school, fewer than one in five eventually make it to graduation.”

One solution, they suggested, is to make sure that all schools get credit for re-engaging students who have dropped out. A “re-engagement rate” could represent the percentage of students in any graduation cohort who had previously dropped out (or were chronic truants).

Also attendance records should be re-examined.

Many of the students in the alternative system have had a spotty attendance history and it is important to know how they compare to the average student and what they contribute to the school’s overall rate. “But the most meaningful comparison is how their attendance at the new site compares to their attendance at their former school,” the authors noted. “Averaged across all students, this serves as a key measure of school-wide gains in student engagement.”