College & Workforce Readiness

Investigation: High Schools Hide Dropouts by Steering Them to Alternative Programs

By Catherine Gewertz — February 22, 2017 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

In a bid to game the accountability system and hide their dropouts, many traditional high schools steer their low-performing students to alternative programs that become dumping grounds and dropout factories, according to a special investigation published by ProPublica.

In a report published Tuesday, ProPublica focuses on an Orlando, Fla., high school that funnels many struggling students to a nearby charter alternative school, where many say they learned little or left before earning diplomas. But the problem extends far beyond Florida, ProPublica reports; many high schools across the country encourage students who aren’t excelling to enroll in alternative charters instead. Those moves allow the sending high school to get low-performing students—dropout risks—off their books, and look rosier in state accountability ratings.

Schools have long tried to minimize their dropout problems; Houston became a national poster boy in 2003 for widespread alterations of its dropout reports. That’s been one of the longstanding criticisms of the No Child Left Behind Act: that the pressure to look good in accountability reports creates an incentive to falsify data. A few years ago, big test-cheating scandal in Atlanta sparked yet another round of debate about the pressures that come with attaching high stakes to standardized testing.

And ProPublica’s report raises that issue, too, concluding that “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 ... that are straining under the pressure of accountability reform.” It also notes that the role of charter schools, including alternative programs, is likely to grow now that school choice advocate Betsy DeVos has become U.S. Secretary of Education.

The ProPublica report examines, in painful detail, the processes in play at Orlando’s Olympia High School, casting it as just one of many schools across the country with similar practices. Olympia sends “its worst achievers” to Sunshine High, a charter alternative school in a nearby strip mall. There, they sit in front of computers for four hours a day, and get “little or no live teaching,” ProPublica reports. The arrangement lets Orlando hang onto its high graduation rate and shiny “A” rating, and Sunshine makes a tidy profit from the money it receives from the school district, the investigation found.

Even though “hundreds” of Sunshine students “exit quickly with no degree and limited prospects,” they don’t count as dropouts, thanks to coding tricks and state law loopholes, ProPublica reports.

Read ProPublica’s full report on how schools hide their dropout numbers online.

See also:

Rewarding Failure: An Education Week Investigation of the Cyber Charter Industry

Image: Getty

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.