School Choice & Charters

Why the ‘Alternative School’ Label Drastically Affects How Grad Rates Look for Charters

By Arianna Prothero — March 07, 2019 2 min read

By Arianna Prothero and Alex Harwin

In one quarter of charter high schools, fewer than half of students graduate on time, according to a recent analysis of federal data by the Education Week Research Center. That’s compared to just 3 percent of all other public schools.

Those percentages do not include alternative schools, which Ed Week removed from the analysis.

But in running those numbers, we found that there are not only significant differences in the number of charter schools with low graduation rates from state to state, but also big variations in the number of alternative schools that states report to the federal government.

Why does this matter? It can drastically affect the number of charter schools with low graduation rates in some states.


See also: In Many Charter High Schools, Graduation Odds Are Slim


Texas and Indiana are good examples. In Texas, a majority of the charter high school class of 2017 attended a school labeled as “alternative” in the federal data.

When EdWeek removed all alternative schools from its original analysis, Texas had 1 percent of its charter high schools&just one school—graduating less than 50 percent of its senior class.

But when the alternative schools were added back into the analysis, the number of Texas charter high schools graduating less than half their students jumped to 23 percent. You can see the shift in the maps below.

In Indiana, the opposite was true. None of the state’s charter schools with graduation rates below 50 percent are labeled as alternative in the federal data, even though half of its charters with low graduation rates are specialized adult charter schools that exclusively serve students who have aged out of the traditional public school system and want to earn a high school diploma.


Texas isn’t the only state that shows a significant shift in the overall graduation picture for charter high schools when alternative schools are included or excluded.

You can see in the maps above that Colorado, Florida, and Michigan also have a lot of alternative charter schools with low graduation rates.

The general definition for alternative schools is squishy at best—but generally speaking, alternative schools serve students at risk of falling behind in a traditional school.

And while the federal data collection gives a definition for alternative schools, the data is self-reported and states have a lot of leeway in how they use that label. This could explain why, at least in part, some states have such large concentrations of alternative charter schools and others don’t.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.