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Alternative School Accountability in California: Findings From a Case Study in San Jose Unified School District

Nicole Hensel
Amanda Lu
Anne Marie Gordon
The California State Board of Education

California has utilized an accountability system to evaluate student performance in public schools; however, this accountability system does not extend to alternative schools for a variety of reasons. In particular, the California State Board of Education (SBE) acknowledges that the current accountability system is not appropriate given the characteristics of students in alternative schools and outcomes observed in those schools. The SBE is currently re-evaluating how it should hold alternative schools accountable. In this report, we use a case study of San Jose Unified School District (SJUSD) to provide the SBE insight into three questions: (1) What types of students do alternative schools serve? (2) Why do students enroll in alternative schools? (3) How do alternative schools impact student performance and outcomes? To evaluate these questions, we used a mix of qualitative and quantitative methods. We conducted site visits to the two continuation high schools in SJUSD and interviewed district officials, school leaders, staff and students. We also obtained quantitative data on student demographics and academic outcomes from SJUSD, which we analyzed in addition to our qualitative findings.

We found that alternative schools in SJUSD serve larger shares of Hispanic students (15 percentage points more), English Learners (ELs) (12 percentage points more), and students with special needs (8 percentage points more) than traditional schools do. We discovered that students who attend alternative schools tend to have academic, behavioral, and circumstantial needs that can prevent their success in traditional schools and thus, make them likely candidates for alternative schools. We also learned that students who choose to pursue alternative education have earned fewer credits in their traditional school settings and are more likely to have been previously suspended than students who attend traditional schools.

In determining the effectiveness of alternative schools, we found that graduation rates at alternative schools are around 45 percent, which is about 43 percent lower - or almost half - than at traditional schools. When examining save rates, we found that alternative schools have a save rate around 76 percent, about 19 percent lower than traditional schools. The save rate is defined to be the share of students who continued the pursuit of a high school diploma, or equivalent, or other career or adult education.

We also evaluated outcomes when students switched from a traditional to an alternative school and when students returned to a traditional school after attending an alternative school. We find that on average students had four fewer absences when making the switch. In addition, after enrolling in alternative schools, students saw a 26 percentage point increase in their probability of earning enough credits to keep them on-track to graduate. However, these gains are not sustained when students moved back to traditional schools - we find that that attendance and probability of being on-track decrease when switching back to traditional schools.

Given our findings, we recommend that the SBE adopt attendance, credit accumulation, and a more nuanced measure of graduation other than cohort graduation rates, such as the save rate or 12th grade graduation rates, as potential indicators of success. We believe that the effectiveness of this formula hinges on the SBE standardizing credit deficiency and accumulation policies as well as tracking student progress upon transferring back to traditional setting.