Oregon’s nearly 50 alternative high schools and online schools urgently require heightened scrutiny and better state oversight to stanch their flood of dropouts, a state audit has found.
Such high schools enroll just 10 percent of Oregon high school students but account for nearly half the state’s high school dropouts, says the audit by the Secretary of State’s audit division, released Wednesday.
Alternative high schools, private and publicly operated alternative programs and online high schools have largely dodged heavy state criticism and in some cases face no state accountability for results, it found.
That is in part because officials sympathize that they face challenges not of their own making. Many students who have been ill-served in regular high schools enroll in alternative options late in high school when they are already over-aged and under-credited for their grade level.
But the state’s failure to monitor them more closely and examine which techniques and programs are most and least effective poorly serves high school students who have already been poorly served by the public school system, the audit concludes. Together, those schools enroll roughly 19,000 Oregon students at greatest risk of dropping out.
“These schools and programs may represent a student’s last and best chance to graduate or obtain a General Equivalency Degree (GED) before dropping out,” the auditors wrote.
The Oregon Department of Education “has not focused on improving education for at-risk students in alternative and online education. Improving the performance of these schools and programs would benefit the students themselves and Oregon’s economy,” they wrote.
Astoundingly, alternative programs that enroll 8,600 of those students are not subjected the same accountability as regular schools, the audit showed. They aren’t given yearly performance ratings; their test scores and graduation rates are not made public; their per-student spending, attendance rates and record of awarding credits are not reported to the state or taxpayers.
Since at least 1998, the Oregonian/OregonLive has published news stories calling attention to how unaccountable the state has allowed many alternative schools to be.
In 2017, the state does not even maintain an accurate census of alternative high school programs and schools, the audit said.
Oregon Department of Education records “do not include some alternative schools and programs. The agency has also not collected student performance data that would help identify successful and underperforming alternative education schools and programs,” the audit found.
It’s not that student progress inside alternative high schools is unknowable or unable to be measured in meaningful ways, the audit found. “Other states, including Colorado, Arkansas, Indiana, and Arizona, have implemented more detailed performance reporting for alternative schools,” it said. “These states take different approaches. Some have included more progress measurements for all schools, including measuring academic growth and indicators of student engagement, such as attendance.”
The auditors concluded that, “Knowing more about how alternative students are doing has some obvious benefits. Enhanced performance data would help (the state education department) better highlight high- and low -performing schools and programs and identify and communicate successful practices,” they wrote. “It would also provide better data for school improvement and state policy development.
“One concern we heard from alternative education administrators and teachers throughout our audit is that the current system does not hold traditional high schools accountable when their students transfer to alternative schools and drop out soon after. In 2015-16, 10 Oregon districts had 50 percent or more of their dropouts come from alternative schools, (state) data shows. In two relatively small districts – Gervais and Coquille – all the dropouts were from alternative schools.”
To help improve graduation outcomes, auditors concluded, the state should improve record-keeping; create meaningful standards and expectations for alternative high schools and report to the public on how well each alternative school meets them; create a centralized body to oversee virtual charter schools that serve at-risk students; and not allow alternative schools and programs to grow until they meet performance standards.
Colt Gill, acting chief of the Oregon Department of Education, said his agency plans to do better and has already started shaping up its definition and census of alternative high schools. He said his agency will report on the performance of alternative schools and programs by next November.
Gill said in all, his agency agrees with all 15 recommendations the auditors made and have launched or will launch initiatives to undertake those steps. Some will required legislative action in 2019, he said.
Gill said out sky-high expectations he said his agency’s team plans to meet: ensure alternative high schools and programs generate outcomes and graduation rates that match those of Oregon’s traditional high schools.