The Charter Blog

Alternative Charter Schools: Should Traditional Accountability Measures Apply?

Should there be “alternate” accountability systems for charter schools that intentionally serve students at risk of academic failure?

The National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) released a report last week that examines this question.Anecdotes Aren’t Enough: An Evidence-Based Approach to Accountability for Alternative Charter Schools offers a set of recommendations for authorizers wrestling with this issue to ensure that quality is appropriately measured at schools with a stated mission of serving high-risk students. Typical accountability measures such as grade-level proficiency and graduation rates may not offer the same barometers of quality in alternative settings. And trying to make current accountability measures “fit” these schools has too often been a matter of simply setting lower expectations. Parents and students should be confident that accountability measures are appropriate for their school and not simply a means to avoid real accountability for educational improvement.

But what is an alternative charter school?

The report provides an interesting window into how states have approached defining alternative charter schools. Colorado has set the highest bar, requiring that 95 percent of a school’s students be classified as “high risk” in order for the school to be moved into its alternate accountability system. Washington, D.C. determined that 60 percent is an appropriate threshold. Texas defines schools where more than 50 percent of its students are 17 or older as a dropout recovery school. California requires at least 70 percent of students at a school fall into one of seven at-risk categories before it is called “alternative.” California also has a specific definition for a dropout recovery school as schools with at least 50 percent of its students classified as dropouts or students who have transferred but not reenrolled in another school for 180 days. Other states have no threshold and only require that a school’s stated mission be to serve an alternative population.

The report recommends setting a high bar when defining such schools. Schools should only be classified as alternative if they have a large percentage of students with extraordinary learning difficulties, acute risks to their ability to succeed, or a documented history of academic failure that leaves them significantly far behind their age group in high school credits.

All public schools, including public charter schools, should receive credit for the progress that they make with high-risk students. But unless there are clear definitions of “alternative” public charter schools, however, there is a “high risk” of simply making excuses for schools and not evaluating them on the basis of clear performance measures.

Christy Wolfe is a senior policy advisor at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools

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