School accountability in the digital age

We have just released the second in our series of policy briefs, titled School Accountability in the Digital Age. (These policy briefs are in addition to the Keeping Pace annual report; the first policy brief examined Teaching Across State Lines.) The new report explores the ways in which the high rates of student mobility in online schools, and the high proportion of students who enter these schools behind in accumulating credits, challenge state accountability systems. As discussed in a recent blog post, the Department of Education in Arizona has recognized these and related issues and has created a proposal to the Arizona State Board of Education to adjust some accountability measures for Arizona Online Instruction schools.

Some of the issues pertain to all schools, but are exacerbated for online schools because of their non-typical student populations. For example, among the shortcomings of the current graduation calculations for all schools are:

  • Schools receive no recognition towards graduation rate calculations for a student who is on track while at the school, but leaves prior to graduating.
  • If a student starts high school elsewhere and enters the school behind on credits, the new school gets no additional recognition for helping the student catch up.
  • A school’s four-year graduation rate will be decreased by enrolling a student who is far behind, even if the school helps that student catch up and graduate in five or six years.

Policy changes that would help address some of the current accountability system issues include the following:

Credit schools with graduating students in five or six years.

Schools should receive some points towards their state report card for graduating students in five and six years. How the credit is allotted would depend on the specifics of each state’s school performance framework.

Measure students’ progress towards graduation, especially for situations in which students switch schools.

The specific calculation would vary by state. Key factors in this approach include defining how a student is determined to be behind, on track, or ahead of pace, at time of enrollment; determining what is appropriate progress towards graduation; and determining incentives to schools for working with students who were behind at time of enrollment and getting them on track to graduate.

Change funding mechanisms to systems that minimize the impact of high student mobility.

Although funding is often perceived as an issue separate from accountability, funding and accountability are tied together in many ways. In particular, issues of student mobility are exacerbated when funding is based on a limited number of count days.

Publish data on student mobility for all schools, and consider creating a designation specific to schools with high rates of student mobility, regardless of other student demographic factors.

Student mobility data should include the number and percentage of students who enroll in the school after the start of the school year, as well as the number of students who start beyond certain dates based on a standard methodology. States that create this designation would need to consider whether they would change how the performance rating would be calculated for such schools.

Require separate reporting on online programs so that online student outcomes can be tracked.

An educational program that is serving a significant number of students with a distinct mode of instruction—as with an online school—should report on online student programs and usage separately from any other school.

Calibrate performance penalties for schools that miss targets for the percentage of students who take state assessments.

States have a compelling interest in ensuring that a high percentage of students take state assessments, but penalties should be calibrated to different levels of participation, instead of being based on missing a single target.

When students change schools, require that the sending school transfer complete student information to the receiving school quickly.

When a student changes schools, the new school should quickly have access to data such as attendance, state test results, and other important academic information about the individual student.

End counting by cohorts, and determine where students go after leaving an online school.

State reporting is too often based on total student counts; instead they should be based on the educational trajectory of each individual student. For example, states should determine where students go after leaving an online school, in categories including students who transfer into another school, those who earn a GED, those who drop out, and those who move out of state, and then make sure those designations are appropriately reflected in the calculation of graduation rate.

State accountability systems are meant to measure and report on how well schools are serving students, in ways that can be understood by policymakers, parents, students, and other stakeholders. These accountability systems tend not to measure schools well when certain factors are present, including when the school has a student population with a high rate of mobility, and when the school has a student population that has entered the school behind in terms of credits accumulated towards graduation. Situations in which students maintain progress towards their academic goals should be seen as successful, and should be distinguished from situations where students fall behind.

Implementation of the policy changes outlined above would help address these shortcomings. It would also help ensure that all schools are held accountable for advancing students during their time at the school, whether that time comprises the student’s entire education, or is a very short stop along their educational path.