Florida to Examine Whether Alternative Charter Schools Underreport Dropouts

Source: Heather Vogell, ProPublica, March 6, 2017

Florida’s Department of Education is expanding an inquiry into how schools classify students who leave without graduating, in response to a ProPublica report that the state may have thousands more dropouts than it acknowledges. Also in reaction to the ProPublica article, the school board chairman in Orlando is asking the district superintendent for a formal report regarding concerns that low-achieving students have been pressured to transfer from traditional to alternative high schools. … Fifteen students at schools run by for-profit Accelerated Learning Solutions (ALS) in Orlando’s district said that, because of their academic performance, they had been denied admission to regular public high schools or told they had to transfer from them to alternative programs, according to our Feb. 21 article, which was co-published by USA Today. Some were pulled from class for surprise assemblies where ALS representatives gave a pitch to attend their schools.

… Several traditional schools improved their graduation rates by dispatching students unlikely to earn diplomas on time to ALS schools, the article reported. Enrollment in alternative schools in Orlando’s district, Orange County, has tripled in recent years, swelling to 3,900 in 2014. District officials say transfers for academic reasons are voluntary. ProPublica also found that these alternative schools could be significantly undercounting dropouts by coding students who leave as withdrawing to enter adult education, such as GED classes. State rules don’t label withdrawals for adult education as dropping out. … The state education department, which was already reviewing graduation-rate data, will broaden its examination in light of ProPublica’s findings, a department spokeswoman wrote in an email. The state board of education will consider the matter at its March 22 meeting. …

Related:

‘Alternative’ Education: Using Charter Schools to Hide Dropouts and Game the System
Source: Heather Vogell and Hannah Fresques, ProPublica, February 21, 2017

… Sunshine collects enough school district money to cover costs and pay its management firm, Accelerated Learning Solutions (ALS), a more than $1.5 million-a-year “management fee,” 2015 financial records show — more than what the school spends on instruction. But students lose out, a ProPublica investigation found. Once enrolled at Sunshine, hundreds of them exit quickly with no degree and limited prospects. The departures expose a practice in which officials in the nation’s tenth-largest school district have for years quietly funneled thousands of disadvantaged students — some say against their wishes — into alternative charter schools that allow them to disappear without counting as dropouts. … The Orlando schools illustrate a national pattern. Alternative schools have long served as placements for students who violated disciplinary codes. But since the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 refashioned the yardstick for judging schools, alternative education has taken on another role: A silent release valve for high schools like Olympia that are straining under the pressure of accountability reform. As a result, alternative schools at times become warehouses where regular schools stow poor performers to avoid being held accountable. Traditional high schools in many states are free to use alternative programs to rid themselves of weak students whose test scores, truancy and risk of dropping out threaten their standing, a ProPublica survey of state policies found.

… Concerns that schools artificially boosted test scores by dumping low achievers into alternative programs have surfaced in connection with ongoing litigation in Louisiana and Pennsylvania, and echo findings from a legislative report a decade ago in California. The phenomenon is borne out by national data: While the number of students in alternative schools grew moderately over the past 15 years, upticks occurred as new national mandates kicked in on standardized testing and graduation rates. The role of charter alternative schools like Sunshine — publicly funded but managed by for-profit companies — is likely to grow under the new U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, an ardent supporter of school choice. … The charters exploit a loophole in state regulations: By coding hundreds of students who leave as withdrawing to enter adult education, such as GED classes, Sunshine claims virtually no dropouts. State rules don’t label withdrawals for that reason as dropping out. But ALS officials cannot say where Sunshine students actually went — or if they even took GED classes at all. …