Federal data paint a grim picture of the charter school sector’s ability to graduate its students. But comparing charter high schools’ graduating power with that of all other public high schools is tricky. The same is true when comparing charters in one state to another.
When Education Week did its data analysis of charter graduation rates, the biggest complicating factor was alternative schools.
The Education Week Research Center found that students from charter schools are roughly three times more likely to be attending an alternative school than students from all other public schools.
So how does that muddy the picture?
For one, there’s little consensus nationally on what constitutes an alternative school, although, generally speaking, alternative schools serve students at risk of failing in a more traditional school.
That could be a school for students who previously dropped out of high school, a school for teenage parents, or a school for students with severe disabilities.
But the definition for alternative schools in the federal Common Core Data collection, which the Education Week Research Center used in its analysis, is narrower. It says alternative schools must also operate in special settings, like a juvenile-justice facility.
But those data are self-reported, and states have leeway in determining whether they ultimately label a school—charter or not—as “alternative.” States appear to take very different approaches to labeling alternative schools, and that can affect how many charter schools they have with low graduation rates.
It also makes cross-state comparisons difficult.
“It does vary a lot from state-to-state—that’s why it should be the case that the federal data collection should correct for that. It’s just in this particular case that doesn’t seem to happen,” said Susan Pendergrass, the director of research and education policy at the Show-Me Institute, a right-leaning think tank. “And I wish I had a reason for why states don’t make those match, but they don’t ... I just think the federal data is self-reported and it’s not being done correctly.”
Take, for example, Texas, where a majority of the charter high school class of 2017 attended a school labeled as “alternative” in the federal data.
When the Education Week Research Center removed all alternative/other schools from its original analysis, Texas had just one charter high school—or 1 percent of its charter high schools—graduating less than 50 percent of its senior class.
But when the research center added alternative schools back to the analysis, the number of Texas charter high schools graduating less than half their students jumped to 23 percent.
Florida and Michigan also had relatively high numbers of alternative charter schools.
In other states, few, if any, charter schools were labeled as “alternative” in the federal data.
Three such states were Arizona, Indiana, and Ohio, all of which had a large share of charters graduating less than half their students. Only Arizona flagged a few charter high schools as “alternative,” at under 3 percent, while Indiana and Ohio reported no alternative charters.
Despite that representation in the federal data, Education Week found when it cross-referenced state data with federal data that all three states consider many of their charter schools with low graduation rates to be alternative schools. All three have special state designations for alternative or dropout-recovery schools, along with separate sets of accountability rules.
In Arizona, nearly 70 percent of charter high schools with graduation rates below 50 percent are considered alternative by the state but not labeled as such in the federal data.
In Ohio, almost 80 percent of charters graduating less than half their students are designated as dropout recovery and prevention schools. In Indiana, about 50 percent of charters with low grad rates are adult high schools.
Taken together, it’s difficult to compare states to one another and to gauge whether charter schools are educating a disproportionately large share of at-risk or high-needs students.
Coverage of how parents work with educators, community leaders and policymakers to make informed decisions about their children’s education is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonk12.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 27, 2019 edition of Education Week as Figuring Out Graduation Rates for Charter Schools: It’s Complicated