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Academic Alternative School Settings: A Conceptual Analysis - Part 2

Module by: Jo Ann Anderson Beken, John Williams, Julie P. Combs, John R. Slate. E-mail the authors

Summary: In this article, we review the issues faced by students who are at-risk of dropping out of school. Specific topics examined herein were: (a) students in danger of dropping out of school; (b) defining dropouts; (c) at-risk students and dropouts; (d) the history of traditional education; (e) alternative schools; and, (f) accountability and alternative education. Also explored in this literature review are studies about school settings and the impact the aforementioned issues have on at-risk students.



This manuscript has been peer-reviewed, accepted, and endorsed by the National Council of Professors of Educational Administration (NCPEA) as a significant contribution to the scholarship and practice of education administration. In addition to publication in the Connexions Content Commons, this manuscript is published in the International Journal of Educational Leadership Preparation, Volume 5, Number 2 (April – June, 2010). Formatted and edited in Connexions by Theodore Creighton and Brad Bizzell, Virginia Tech and Janet Tareilo, Stephen F. Austin State University.

Texas’ Options for Alternative Schooling

School administrators in Texas cannot require all children to attend public school (Leeper v. Arlington I.S.D., 1987). Even though efforts to improve public school education have been extensive at both the state and national levels, many parents have become dissatisfied with public schools and have pursued educational alternatives.

Home schooling is one alternative option for parents who decide to pursue other schooling options for their children. Leeper v. Arlington I. S. D. (1987) paved the way for the boom of home schooling in Texas. In that case, which challenged the compulsory school attendance law, a state district judge ruled that in the state of Texas a home in which students are instructed qualifies as a private school (Kemerer & Walsh, 1994). Chief among the acceptable conditions which qualified a home as a private school were that students were actually taught by parents or those standing in parental authority, that students follow a curriculum consisting of books and other written material, and that the curriculum is designed to meet fundamental educational goals of reading, spelling, grammar, mathematics, and a study of good citizenship (Funkhouser, 2000).

Texas law presently does not delineate any statutes governing home schools, but Leeper v.Arlington established that home schools must have a curriculum that is designed to meet basic educational goals. The Texas Court of Appeals affirmed Leeper v. Arlington in 1991, which then went to the Texas Supreme Court as Texas Education Agency v.Leeper. The state’s high court ruled that a home school could be a private school with exemption to compulsory attendance law, as long as children are taught in a legitimate manner from curriculum designed to meet basic educational goals (Funkhouser, 2000). Home schooling in the United States has become a topic of interest to education policymakers, administrators, and the general public. Published estimates of the number of children who are home schooled vary by hundreds of thousands of children and are of questionable reliability (Lines, 1998).

Texas parents were also able to choose charter schools as an alternative to public school after the Texas legislature authorized creation of these schools under three different arrangements: home rule school district, campus, or program charters (TEA, 1999; Funkhouser, 2000). Unlike conventional public schools, charter schools must be customer-oriented in order to remain in the business of education. Ray Budde was credited with introducing the idea of charter schools in the United States in the late 1980s. The first United States charter school law was passed in Minnesota, and California followed with charter legislation in 1992 (Funkhouser).

No two state charter laws are alike. Laws vary and sponsors of charters can be either local boards or state boards of education, but the majority of states require local board endorsement. Charters are granted to teachers, parents, universities, community members, business leaders, and other interested groups (Funkhouser, 2000; TEA, 1999).

Some resistance to charter schools focused on negative attitudes stemming from the traditional educational establishment. Other issues derived from financial concerns because state per-pupil funds that would have gone to the local district followed the students to the charter school (Funkhouser, 2000). In the academic year 2004, the Snapshot State Summary Table (TEA, 2004c) indicated that 274 charter schools were serving 7,539 students in the alternative charter school setting.

The GED has become a key credential for school dropouts in the United States, especially for economically disadvantaged students (Tyler, 2003). Some researchers have concluded that the GED is not equivalent to a high school diploma and that GED recipients are similar to dropouts in terms of labor market outcomes (Boesel, Alsalam, & Smith, 1998). The relationship between GED recipients and dropouts might be explained through noncognitive skills (Heckman & Rubinstein, 2001). Given the mixed results of this research, there is value in examining the GED credential using a different sample. Moreover, the focus of previous studies has been on the economic benefits of the GED credential, and benefits in other areas may have been overlooked.

As noted in Tyler’s (2003) findings, a lack of research exists on the relationship between the GED and nonlabor market outcomes. One of the few examples of such studies is an examination of the connection between GED recipients and smoking and obesity (Kenkel, Lillard, & Mathios, 2006). Due to the lack of research, it is unclear whether GED credentials benefit dropouts, especially in areas other than increased earnings.

Although the GED is viewed as a high school equivalent, a GED credential is not equal to a high school diploma, as economic researchers have shown (Heckman & LaFontaine, 2006). Even so, the possession of a GED credential should benefit dropouts because it indicates a specific level of educational attainment.

Private schooling has received significant attention from educational reformers who view the public school system as too resistant to change to be successfully reformed. Rather than provide money directly to public schools, the supporters of private schools urged the adoption of some type of voucher system whereby public money goes to parents, who then choose a public or private school for their children (Funkhouser, 2000). Proponents believed that such a system would stimulate healthy competition within the educational system and would give parents a greater stake in their children’s education (Rumberger, 1987). Critics asserted that a voucher system would destroy the common learning experience fostered by the public school and would be discriminatory both economically and racially (Funkhouser, 2000). School enrollment grew faster in the 1990s than in the 1980s, and even though much of the growth in both decades was in public education, private and other forms of education became larger parts of total elementary and secondary enrollment in the state over the last decade (Murdock et al., 2002).

School Size and Student-To-Teacher Ratios

Most educators have recognized the value of small class sizes. Over the last half of the 20th century, student-to-teacher ratios in the United States have fallen from about 27:1 to 17:1, or 35% (Hanushek, Rifkin, & Taylor, 1996). Larger school size (enrollment) has long been linked to higher dropout rates. Districts with larger enrollments per school tended to have higher dropout rates (Alspaugh, 1998). The reasons for these higher numbers varied by location. A portion of the larger schools had a greater number of Special Education students and students with Limited English Proficiency. These schools often had a greater number of students with low socioeconomic backgrounds. As school size increased, the negative correlation between the percent of students on free or reduced lunch and educational outcomes increased in magnitude, illustrating some of the complex, underlying relationships associated with the variables involved in studies of dropout rates (Alspaugh, 1998). Alspaugh believed that, as a school’s enrollment grew, the probability that underlying factors associated with high dropout rates would also increase. Small school size was associated with lower high school dropout rates (Toenjes, 1989).

Small classes or small groups working with one teacher were key elements of programs targeted for students at-risk of dropping out (Slavin, 1990; Slavin & Madden, 1995). Glass and Smith (1978) strongly endorsed reduced class size as a reform likely to produce improvements in academic achievement. The researchers reviewed 80 research reports on the relationship between class size and achievement, obtaining more than 100 comparisons from studies of smaller and larger classes. The meta-analyses showed that, as class size decreased, achievement increased and that benefits began to emerge as class size fell below 20 students. Wehlage, Rutter, Smith, Lesko, and Fernandez (1989) stated, “The structural and cultural factors are interrelated; i.e., smallness and autonomy are linked to teachers’ sense of school ownership and their willingness to invest themselves in helping at-risk students” (p. 147).

The most influential contemporary evidence that smaller classes lead to improved achievement was Tennessee’s Project STAR (Finn, 2002). Because this program set up randomly selected control and experimental groups of students, researchers were able to compare students who had four years of small class participation with students who had none. Researchers could more reliably evaluate the impact of the class size reform. Finn documented that students in smaller classes did better than those students in larger classes throughout Grades Kindergarten through 3. Finn further reported that minority and inner city children gained the most from smaller classes and that the more years spent in reduced size classes, the longer lasting the benefits. These studies verified the benefits of smaller classes and lower student-to-teacher ratios for students served in academic alternative schools. Achilles (1996) reported that in all assessments for student achievement, students in class sizes of 13–17 scored higher than the students in class sizes of 22–25.

Regardless of the era, the findings were consistent. Small schools were perceived as safe, personalized, and equitable environments (Raywid & Oshiyama, 2000). By creating these environments, student achievement increased, and students had greater opportunities for individual development (Cotton, 2001).

Per Pupil Expenditures and Alternative Schools

Some educators and legislators have argued that large schools were more cost-effective than smaller schools. A closer look revealed that this belief may not be true. Researchers have demonstrated that the relationship between size and costs varied depending on individual school circumstances (Gregory, 1992; Howley, 1996). Many small schools were operated very economically, and many large ones had exorbitant per-pupil costs.

McKenzie (1983) argued that many analyses of the school size-cost relationship were simplistic and did not yield useful information. He provided a numerical representation of that relationship, which indicated that it was U-shaped; that is, average per-pupil costs declined up to a point as enrollment increased, reached a minimum, and then rose with increased school growth. Researchers (Gregory, 1992; Robertson, 1995) claimed that the sizeable staff needed to supervise and direct large numbers of students accounted for the growth in costs as school enrollment increased.

The Digest of Education Statistics (2004) stated that total per pupil expenditures in the United States increased from $373 in 1919–1920 to $7,507 in 2000–2101 after adjustments based upon The Consumer Price Index. From 1970–1973 and 1983–1988, the main average annual increases at just over 4% were recorded. In Texas, the total unadjusted per pupil expenditures followed a similar pattern by increasing from $1,740 per student in 1980 to $6,539 per student by 2000.

Skandera and Sousa (2003) explained several causes for growth in per pupil spending. Special education student expenditure changes explained about 20% of the expenditure growth between 1980 and 1990. Pupil-teacher ratios dropped from 22.3:1 to 17.3:1 from 1970 to 1995. Teacher salaries increased as the median teacher experience increased from 8 years to 15 years for the same years. The percentage of teachers with a master's degree increased from 27.5% in 1970 to 56.2% in 1995, and growth in expenditures, other than instructional salaries, revealed a large share of the cost increases. Hanushek et al. (1996) reported comparable findings in their study of 20th century expenditure growth in U.S. school spending.

In the 2001–2002 school year, Texas per pupil spending ranked 36th in the United States at $6,771 and 36th for instructional spending at $4,089 (Digest of Education Statistics, 2004). Expenditure changes followed the U.S. trend with considerable increases reported from $551 per-pupil in 1969 to the $6,771 per pupil in 2001–2002. However, from 1999 to 2002, only minor increases in per pupil spending were shown. Along with expenditure increases, student-to-teacher ratios fell from 15.3:1 in 1997 to 14.7:1 in 2001 (Digest of Education Statistics). Actually, a considerable reduction in the ratio of non-teaching professionals per student occurred from 86.9:1 in 1991–1992 to 63.8:1 in 2004–2005 (TEA, 1991; TEA, 2004d). This decrease in the ratio of non-teaching professionals indicated an overall increase in non-instructional spending.

The data in Texas indicated that general revenue expenditures on public higher education increased by 18.3% and that per pupil expenditures increased by 8.7% between 1990 and 2000 (Murdock et al., 2002). Public costs in Texas for education in 2000 were more than $23 billion for elementary and secondary education, having increased by 31.6% in real dollar terms from 1990 to 2000, and general revenue costs for educational programs at colleges and universities were more than $2.6 billion in 2000, having increased by more than 18.3% from 1990 to 2000 (Murdock et al., 2002).

Accountability and Alternative Education

National Accountability

A Nation at Risk (1983) released by the National Commission on Excellence in Education during the Reagan administration, required states to toughen graduation requirements because minimal standards in place at the time were said to be a threat to national security (Stringfeld & Land, 2002). However, these reform proposals continued to be voluntary.

In 2001, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) in a bipartisan effort to improve education in the United States, particularly for low-income and minority students. Because policy makers were discouraged with the slow pace of change that had characterized previous educational reform, this act was essentially different from it predecessor. The Improving American Schools Act (IASA) (Sunderman & Kim, 2004) required states to implement a single, statewide accountability system based on performance on state reading and mathematics tests (NCLB, 2002). Unlike previous legislation, NCLB specified timelines that states had to follow to insure that all students are proficient. The legislation mandated how often students were to be tested and which subjects were to be emphasized. The requirements also prescribed a series of consequences for low-performing schools that failed to improve scores on standardized tests (NCLB).

The NCLB Act (2002) was the most recent national education reform legislation approved by the U.S. Congress as a replacement for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Educational restructuring was necessary due to the lack of high standards that has been addressed by former administrations.

The NCLB Act was created to ensure that all students were provided a sound curriculum and effective instruction that would enable them to perform at grade level in reading and math. A limited time was allocated to make sure that accountability was enforced. Stecher, Hamilton, and Gonzales (2003) reported that NCLB mandated that all students were required to be proficient in reading and mathematics by the year 2014.

At the core of the national accountability system was the idea that all schools would be held to the same high standards and be accountable for the performance of all of their students. In meeting these goals, little thought was given to differences in the resources between schools or to the types of students they served (Stecher et al., 2003). Congress did not consult with state and local policymakers or educators when it developed the legislation. Instead, the law represented a political concession between the political parties and entities within those parties.

The goals of NCLB (2001) were that (a) all students would attain proficiency or better in reading and mathematics by 2013–2014, (b) all limited English students would become proficient in English, (c) all teachers would be highly qualified by 2005–2006, (d) all students would be educated in safe, drug-free environments, and (e) all students would graduate from high school (NCLB). The stated purpose of the law was to close the achievement gap with accountability, flexibility, parental choices, and research-based reforms (NCLB). The accountability factor included specific testing requirements for all states, precise Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) requirements, stringent consequences for low performing districts, and clearly defined public reporting mandates (NCLB). According to Yeh (2005), critics of the testing requirement in the NCLB legislation generally reported four negative classroom effects produced by testing. They included educators narrowing the curriculum by excluding subject matter not tested, excluding topics either not tested or not likely to appear on the test even within tested subjects, reducing learning to the memorization of facts easily recalled for multiple-choice testing, and devoting too much classroom time to test preparation rather than learning. Cizek (2001) reported that, for the most part, these factors identified as components of NCLB had not been subjected to the rigors of research. Instead, they had been reported anecdotally or had been predicted to be the inevitable negative effects of the testing component of the legislation.

The teacher quality component of NCLB specified that all new Title I teachers must be highly qualified, must be certified and teaching in their content area, must hold permanent credentials, and must have evidence of competency in assigned teaching areas (NCLB, 2002). All core academic subject-area teachers not highly qualified must meet the requirements by 2005–2006.

Options and choices for parents specified that all Title I schools would increase their parent notification and requirements, and would emphasize parental involvement (NCLB, 2002). Parents would be offered transfer options to schools not identified for improvement and supplemental services provided outside of the school day (NCLB).

Methods used to improve instruction required that they be based on scientific, research-based programs. Scientific research-based studies must include the use of the scientific method, must be able to be replicated, must be able to be generalized to larger populations, must meet rigorous standards, and must confirm that other studies/programs point to the same conclusions (NCLB, 2002).

Flexibility in the use of funding was another basic component of NCLB. The law allowed for up to 50% of the funds allocated in one or more of the following programs to be transferred among these programs including Teacher and Principal Training and Recruiting, Enhancing Education Through Technology, Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities, and Innovative Programs (NCLB).

Texas Accountability

The Comprehensive Annual Report on Texas Public Schools (TEA, 2005a) used a four-year longitudinal report analysis and reported that students left school before graduating because of low or failing grades, poor attendance, language problems, and failure to pass the state-level exit examination. This exit examination was a direct result of Texas educators striving to meet the requirements of NCLB. The new standard’s intent may have resulted in students dropping out of school because they could not pass the accountability standards created to meet the requirements of NCLB.

Enacted by the Texas legislature in 1993, accountability legislation mandated the creation of an accountability system for all Texas schools. This accountability system integrated the statewide curriculum, the state criterion-referenced assessment system, district and campus accountability, district and campus recognition for high performance and significant increases in performance, sanctions for poor performance, and school, district, and state reports (TEA, 2004b).

Performance measures for campuses serving at-risk students were developed in late 1994 and implemented in the 1995–1996 school year. For a campus to qualify as alternative, it had to serve one or more of the following student populations: students at-risk of dropping out, recovered dropouts, pregnant or parenting students, adjudicated students, students with severe discipline problems, or expelled students (TEA, 1999).

For the 1995–1996 school year, alternative accountability ratings were based on state-approved district proposals that included student performance indicators, current-year data, and comparisons of pre- and post-assessment results. Following a review of campus data by the local board of trustees, each district made an initial determination of the campus rating. The district forwarded this initial determination to the TEA where a panel of peer reviewers examined the district plan and sent a recommendation to the commissioner (TEA, 1999).

From the 1995–1996 to 2001–2002 school years, changes were made to the ratings criteria and procedures determined by an ad hoc Alternative Education Advisory Committee. House Bill 6, enacted by the 77th Texas Legislature, required a pilot program to examine issues surrounding accountability of alternative education programs. The purposes of this pilot were to analyze the existing status of AECs and to make recommendations regarding the methods of evaluating the performance of these campuses (TEA, 2004d).

The 2003 Educator Focus Group on Accountability made a recommendation to develop new Alternative Education Accountability (AEA) procedures for 2005 and beyond. The new AEA procedures were based on the following guidelines:

  1. The AEA indicators are based on data submitted through standard data submission processes such as PEIMS or by the state testing contractor.
  2. The AEA measures are appropriate for alternative education programs offered on AECs rather than just setting lower standards on the same measures used in the standard accountability procedures. Furthermore, these measures ensure that all students demonstrate proficiency on the state assessments in order to graduate.
  3. The Texas Growth Index (TGI) and other improvement indicators are evaluated as base indicators for AEC ratings.
  4. Additional AEA criteria are included. For example, AECs must have a minimum percentage of at-risk students (based on PEIMS data reported on current-year fall enrollment records) to be evaluated under AEA procedures. (TEA, 2004d, p. 7)

Also, in 2003, ratings for all campuses were suspended for one year as educators implemented the new Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) assessments for the first time and developed the new state accountability system. In 2004, registered AECs received a rating of Not Rated: Alternative Education, as the TEA developed new AEA procedures (TEA). In 2005, the TEA evaluated registered AECs for the first time under the newly developed, redesigned AEA procedures. The 2007 Alternative Accountability State Table (TEA, 2007a) reported that there were 360 schools that met the criteria for alternative accountability.

The Texas accountability system offered districts with AECs the option to be evaluated under AEA procedures and to receive accountability ratings based on different performance standards and indicators or measures than those used for regular campuses (TEA, 2006a). In Texas, 10 criteria were required for campuses to be registered for AEA:

  1. The Alternative Education Campus (AEC) must have its own county-district campus (CDC) number to which Public Education Information Management system (PEIMS) data are submitted and test answer documents are coded.
  2. The AEC must be identified in AskTED (Texas School Directory database) as an alternative campus.
  3. The AEC must be dedicated to serving “students at-risk” of dropping out of school.
  4. The AEC must operate on its own campus budget.
  5. The AEC must offer nontraditional settings and methods of instructional delivery designed to meet the needs of the students served on the AEC.
  6. The AEC must have an appropriately certified, full-time administrator whose primary duty is the administration of the AEC.
  7. The AEC must have appropriately certified teachers assigned in all areas including special education, bilingual education, and /or English as a second language.
  8. The AEC must provide each student the opportunity to attend a 7–hour school day, according to the needs of each student.
  9. If the campus serves students with disabilities, the student must be placed at the AEC by their Admission, Review, and Dismissal (ARD) committee.
  10. Students with disabilities must receive all services outlined in their current individualized education program (IEP). Limited English proficient (LEP) students must receive all services outlined by the language proficiency assessment committee (LPAC). Students with disabilities and LEP students must be served by appropriately certified teachers. (TEA, 2006a, p. 78)

The AEA procedures outlined four base indicators: (a) performance on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS), (b) performance on the State-Developed Alternative Assessment II (SDAA II), (c) Completion Rate II for the Class of 2005, and (d) 2004–2005 Annual Dropout rate for Grades 7 through 12 (TEA). A single performance indicator is evaluated for TAKS. The TAKS Progress indicator sums performance results across grades and across subjects to determine AEC ratings under the AEA procedures. In 2006, students served at AECs must pass 40% of the tests taken. In 2007 and 2008, 45% of the tests must be passed, and in 2009 and 2010, 50% of the tests taken must be passed in order to meet the Academically Acceptable standard (TEA, 2006a).

The SDAA II assesses students with disabilities in Grades 3–10 who receive instruction in the state’s curriculum, but for whom the TAKS test is not an appropriate measure of their academic progress. The SDAA II tests are given in the areas of reading, English language arts (ELA), and mathematics. Students are assessed at their appropriate instructional levels, as determined by their ARD committees. To meet the Academically Acceptable standard, at least 40% of SDAA II tests taken must meet ARD expectation (TEA, 2006a).

Another indicator for AEC accountability includes Completion Rate II. This longitudinal rate indicates the percentage of students who first attended Grade 9 in the 2001–2002 school year who graduated, received a General Educational Development (GED) certificate, or are continuing their education four years later (TEA, 2006a). Completion Rate II includes graduates, continuing students (students who return to school for a fifth year), and GED recipients in the definition of Completion Rate II for AECs of Choice evaluated under AEA procedures (TEA AEC Accountability Manual, 2006b). For the years 2006 and 2007, the completion rate must be 75%. After 2007, the rate is to be determined by TEA. A student must be enrolled at the AEC for at least 85 days in order for his or her completion rate to be counted at that AEC. A student who has not been enrolled for at least 85 days will have his completion rate counted at his last campus of enrollment (TEA, 2006a).

The TEA 2006 Alternative Education Accountability (AEA) State Data Table revealed that 71% of alternative school students passed all TAKS tests taken. In 2005, 66% of alternative school students passed all TAKS tests taken. In 2006, 75% of all tests taken for the State Developed Alternative Assessment II (SDAA II) for students served in alternative schools met ARD expectations. In 2005, 74% of tests taken met ARD expectations. Completion Rate II in 2005 for students served in alternative schools indicated that 90.7% completed high school with their cohorts, whereas in 2004, 90.6% completed high school in four years. The annual dropout rate for alternative education students in 2005 was 3%, versus the 2004 dropout rate of 2.8% (TEA, 2006b).


Wolk (2000) stated in his study of alternative schools that the alternative setting reflected Dewey’s ideals in that:

they are small and possess a clear sense of mission, which is shared along with power and responsibility among students, parents, and teachers. They personalize learning, which means they are child-centered rather than curriculum-centered, and they use teaching methods that reflect what we have discovered in the past 30 years about learning. (p. 7)

Sergiovanni (1999) noted that all students, at-risk or otherwise, could reach their potential with the encouragement of quality teachers within a caring school community. The results of a 2001 study of alternative schools (Husted & Cavalluzzo, 2001) indicated that alternative schools, schools-within-schools, career academies, magnet schools, and technology preparation schools had higher success rates for graduating at-risk students. Researchers attributed that success to the smaller learning environment, increased educational engagement, varied instructional techniques, and expanded teacher input regarding issues related to curriculum and governance (Conrath, 2001; Roderick, 1993; Rumberger, 1987).

In this article, we explored the importance of studying the dropout issue, as well as the reasons that prompted a student’s decision to leave school before completing graduation requirements. In this review, we examined the issues faced by students who are at-risk of dropping out of school. Specific topics included (a) students in danger of failing to graduate from high school, (b) defining dropouts, (c) at-risk students and dropouts, (d) the history of traditional education, (e) alternative schools, and (f) accountability and alternative education. Also explored was the literature regarding school settings and the impact the aforementioned issues have on at-risk students.


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