Continuous Improvement Series: Accountability for Alternative Schools in California

Year of publication: 
February 2017
Publication: 
Policy Analysis for California Education

Continuous Improvement Series

Policymakers and educators at all levels of the system are wrestling with the virtually simultaneous implementation of four radically new and promising policy initiatives: the Common Core State Standards (CCSS); computer adaptive assessments developed by the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium; the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF); and a new accountability system that focuses on Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAPs) and an evaluation rubric rather than the traditional Academic Performance Index (API) scores. Few if any local actors have access to the kind of research-based information and guidance that PACE has provided California policymakers for more than 30 years. The PACE Continuous Improvement (CI) series provides California’s education leaders timely practice-based evidence and strategies to drive continuous improvement in the performance of schools and students, by reviewing field research and identifying promising practices that are underway.

California Overview

California’s alternative education options for youth vulnerable to dropping out of school have been established at different historical points and for different student age and target populations. For purposes of this brief, we define an “alternative school” as belonging to one of six legislatively authorized types of public (non-charter) schools that meet the definitions of the Alternative School Accountability Model (ASAM). These schools are operated by different local agencies – school districts, county school boards, or juvenile justice agencies and the courts –and governed by overlapping and sometimes legislatively superseded or otherwise inoperative portions of the state Education Code. Currently, the California Department of Education (CDE) is considering the development of a new accountability system for alternative schools that aligns with Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAP) for all public schools.

The CDE identifies almost 800 public alternative schools across the state (predominantly high schools) designed to meet the needs of credit-deficient and other youth vulnerable to dropping out before completing the minimum requirements for a regular high school diploma. California law contemplates more intensive services and accelerated credit accrual strategies in these schools so that students who are vulnerable to dropping out might have a renewed opportunity to “complete the required academic courses of instruction to graduate from high school.” In a recent review, however, the California Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) concluded that the state’s current school accountability system fails to adequately address alternative schools insofar as it neither establishes clear long-term objectives nor sets relevant shorter-term performance expectations for these schools. As a consequence, the CDE currently has no authoritative standards for effectively assessing school or district-level alternative school performance, for identifying alternative schools that may not be serving students well, or for providing those schools with appropriate supports and incentives for improvement.

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