Accountability and perspective needed for drop-out recovery charters

Drop-out recovery charter schools annually serve about 20 percent of Ohio’s charter students but have never been held accountable for the performance of their students. Ohio’s Senate Bill 316 (SB 316) would change this by requiring the creation and enforcement of standards for these schools. The legislation empowers Ohio’s Board of Education to set accountability standards but also leaves open what these standards will actually be. Yesterday, however, the House education committee amended the bill so that drop-out recovery schools will not be subject to the state’s automatic closure law for charter schools.

As the House considers the bill this week, lawmakers need to balance the demand for high standards for recovery charters with the unique student composition and testing challenges associated with these schools. Further, lawmakers should understand the benefit of drop-out recovery schools to the graduation rates of traditional public high schools.

First, by definition, drop-out recovery charters primarily serve dropouts or students at risk of dropping out. This fact alone requires a different perspective of what “student achievement” means—and the approaches required for student success. Because dropout recovery charters enroll mostly high-poverty and highly underperforming students, an apple-to-apples comparison of dropout recovery charter performance to traditional high school standards of success seems unreasonable.

Second, legislators should consider how dropout recovery charters actually benefit public school districts. They do this is a couple ways: first, by enrolling students who would have otherwise dropped out of education completely, recovery charters improve public school district’s graduation rates. Consider, for example, Dayton Public School’s graduation rates during the 2000s in the chart below:


Source: Ohio Department of Education (official) and author's calculation (estimated)

The red line shows Dayton Public’s official graduation rate rising from 51 percent to 84 percent during the past decade; simultaneously, Dayton’s recovery charter enrollment grew by 600 percent. To estimate the impact that recovery charter growth has had on Dayton’s graduation rate, we assume that 75 percent of recovery charter students would have otherwise left the Dayton Public Schools without graduating. The blue line shows this estimated rate without recovery charters. The adjusted rate reduces Dayton Public’s graduation rate by up to 20 percentage points. (For more details about how the adjustment was made, see the report here.)

Perhaps even as important as recovery schools’ salutary effect on public school graduation rates, dropout recovery charters may directly benefit the students who attend public schools. How so? Underperforming students may have behavioral problems and may frequently disrupt student learning. If a public school district sees many of its most struggling and disruptive students migrate to dropout recovery schools, the student learning environment within its own walls should improve.

Third, assessing recovery charters’ performance should account for the fluid nature of their student attendance. The Performance Index (PI), an official performance metric and a widely quoted measure of school performance, shows how student attendance affects this indicator. Consider the 2010-11 PIs of two recovery charter:

Source: Ohio Department of Education, District Report Cards

We observe the very strong downward effect that untested students has on a school’s PI. (We suspect untested students were absent at during the exam period.) Cleveland Academy, which had a four percent untested rate, had a PI of 66. Meanwhile, Dayton Life Skills, with 46 percent of its students untested, reported a PI of 36. Thus, Cleveland’s higher PI may simply reflect higher attendance rates during examination time, not actual student performance.

We support the accountability provision in the Senate version of SB 316 to identify recovery charters that don’t serve their students’ needs. But we also ask legislators to consider recovery charters’ unique student composition, their benefits to public districts, and their testing challenges. This will take some smart thinking about how to assess recovery charters’ performance and whom to compare them with. And it will require careful consideration regarding sanctions for non-performing schools, and particularly, the consequences that closure would have on public schools.

We hope smart thinking will prevail. Colorado lawmakers have already implemented an “alternative accountability” system for its drop-out recovery charter schools, and we would encourage Ohio’s lawmakers to do the same. We highly recommend that lawmakers check out the testimony before the Ohio Senate on how to do this provided by the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

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