How high schools hide dropouts-and cheat students out of a real diploma

Orlando’s Olympia High boasts a 90 percent graduation rate — not counting students who go to an alternative school where few graduate.

High schools are inflating graduation rates and test scores by steering low achievers to alternative schools, reports ProPublica and USA Today. When they drop out, nobody’s accountable.

Heather Vogell and Hannah Fresques focus on Orlando, Florida, where district schools, such as “A”-rated Olympia High, send their future dropouts to for-profit charters such as Sunshine High.

Sunshine’s 455 students — more than 85 percent of whom are black or Hispanic — sit for four hours a day in front of computers with little or no live teaching.

. . . “I would show up, I would sit down and listen to music the whole time. I didn’t really make any progress the whole time I was there,” said Thiago Mello, 20, who spent a year at Sunshine and left without graduating.

It’s not just Orlando, write Vogell and Fresques. “While the number of students in alternative schools grew moderately over the past 15 years, upticks occurred as new national mandates kicked in on standardized testing and graduation rates.”

Schools have dumped future dropouts into worthless alternative programs before No Child Left Behind and charter schools, writes Maureen Kelleher on Education Post.

In the early 1980s, only 20 percent of ninth graders who entered one of New York City’s comprehensive high schools actually graduated, wrote Michelle Fine in Framing Dropouts. Discipline and attendance policies pushed out the rest.

In 1999, Kelleher reported on Chicago high schools that “hide dropouts by transferring them to alternative schools” where their failures wouldn’t be tracked. The issue “resurfaced in 2015, forcing the city to recalculate graduation rates,” she writes.

Notably, in Chicago, charter schools weren’t the source of the problem. Instead, the district rapidly expanded seats in alternative schools by contracting directly with for-profit alternative school providers. Just as ProPublica did nationally, Chicago journalists raised important questions about the quality of education they offer.

In the mid-1990s, then Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas “encouraged a number of deeply-rooted, community-based alternative schools to unite under the umbrella of Youth Connection Charter School,” Kelleher writes. “In these schools, students attend full school days, earn credits in engaging classes and have close contact with teachers.”  Data show most earn high school diplomas and go on to community colleges.

California developed an accountability system years before No Child Left Behind. High schools opened “opportunity” schools for high-risk students. The lowest-scoring students’ scores and dropout rates weren’t counted against the high school that had pushed them out.

A version of this post originally appeared at Joanne Jacobs blog.

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Joanne Jacobs

Joanne Jacobs

Joanne was born in Chicago and named after her grandfather, Joe Jacobs, who’d been a police reporter for the Omaha Bee-News. At the age of eight, she and her best friend became the creators and co-editors-in-chief of "The Wednesday Report" for four years. After years as a San Jose Mercury News columnist, Joanne started an education blog in 2001 and wrote "Our School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea and the Charter School That Beat the Odds." She freelances for online sites, newspapers, magazines, foundations and think tanks. In addition to blogging at joannejacobs.com, Joanne writes Community College Spotlight at ccspotlight.org.

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