State and federal leaders judge high schools by their graduation rate. But that's not always fair for virtual and alternative schools that work with a higher percentage of at-risk, mobile students.

Take Idaho as an example. A state education leader recently blamed virtual and alternative schools for dragging down Idaho's graduation rate in 2013-14 to about 77 percent. Those two categories of schools did post low graduation rates of 20 and 36 percent respectively. That said, virtual schools serve just over 2 percent of 2 million students statewide.

"While certainly graduation rates at virtual schools are lower in Idaho as they are across the country, they make up a small enough percentage that it's kind of disingenuous for the state to say that's the reason why they're so much lower," said Matthew Wicks, vice president of data analysis and policy at Connections Education, which works with 30 full-time online schools in 26 states.

That said, state and local education leaders wield plenty of power in the virtual school space and could use low student outcomes to justify shutting down schools. Before they can operate, virtual charter schools in particular need authorization from entities including a local education agency, state education board, school district or university, depending on what state law requires. These authorizers can also revoke schools' charters, decide not to renew them or order them to shut down if they fail to produce the student outcomes they agreed to. 

In general, chronically low-performing schools with low graduation rates, high dropout rates and low test scores make it onto their states' list of failing schools. At that point, states may create an intervention plan and invest more resources into the schools. School districts or states could also replace a number of the school staff members. In some cases, the state would take over the school.

Graduation rate calculations work the same way for every state thanks to federal regulations, though Idaho just started using the mandatory federal calculation in the 2014-15 school year. When students enter their high school as freshmen, they count as one cohort. Over the next four years, the school subtracts students who transfer out, emigrate to another country or die, and adds students who transfer in. At the end of the fourth year, the graduation rate equals the number of graduates divided by the adjusted number of cohort students.

Major Challenges for Virtual, Alternative Schools

This calculation works well for traditional schools where most students stick around for four years and stay on track to graduate. But it presents challenges for virtual, alternative and some inner-city schools, which typically see students move more often and come into their schools behind in credits. 

Often, families send their students to virtual schools to address a specific short-term problem such as bullying, a health issue or a physical move, Wicks said. When those issues have been addressed, then they may transfer elsewhere, which can contribute to higher mobility rates.

It's difficult to keep track of students who move. Families don't always tell schools when their students leave or where they're going. Even if they do, communication between school districts and across state lines can be spotty at best. As students continue to move from school to school, they lose some of their support systems along the way and can fall through the cracks.

On top of that, many students aren't on track to graduate when they transfer to virtual or alternative high schools. At Marshall PASS Institute in Chicago, 17-19-year-old students typically come into the school 10 to 14 credits short of the graduation requirement, said teacher Carol Brown-Robinson. They're often parenting, working, taking care of family members or reintegrating into the outside world after prison.

Between 2012 and 2014, nearly three-quarters of more than 19,000 students transferred into schools affiliated with Connections Education after their freshman year. Of those students, nearly a third arrived behind in credits. Students were more likely to transfer to virtual schools in their junior year, though most of the ones who came in behind in credits transferred their senior year. 

Even though these at-risk students may eventually graduate, their virtual and alternative schools don't get credit for that because the four-year graduation rate is what matters to state leaders. In addition, traditional schools may send these students to alternative or virtual schools in the last six months of their fourth year in high school. That leaves little time for schools to catch them up, yet they get dinged if a student doesn't graduate on time or drops out.

"That's a fundamental problem with a four-year calculation: that it's the last school that gets the credit or the blame," Wicks said.

Mobility rates and low credits can also affect traditional school graduation rates. However, these schools generally serve a more stable population of students who tend to stay on track in larger numbers. 

It's important to recognize that virtual schools face challenges when they work with students who are behind academically. But these challenges can't be a rationale for always explaining why the graduation rates aren't where they should be, said Bruce Friend, chief operating officer of the International Association for K12 Online Learning. That may be the case for some schools, but not others. At some point, a school has to take responsibility for its results.

"We can't just simply say, 'Well, we could do better if we had better performing students,'" Friend said. "What school wouldn't?" 

A Messy Solution

But it's tricky to figure out where one school's responsibility starts and another one's ends. 

The Every Student Succeeds Act acknowledges the problem with dumping potential dropouts on alternative and virtual schools in the last six months of their fourth year. If that happens, the new law would count the dropout against the school where the student spent the most time. That said, the new law won't go into effect until the 2017-18 school year, and the changes likely won't trickle down to state accountability systems until the following year, said John Watson, founder of the Evergreen Education Group. 

Policymakers could consider a growth model as an alternative or as an additional success measure, much like they have done with standardized testing, Watson suggests. In this type of model, a school would be measured by the difference between the number of credits students had when they came and the number they had when they left. That means schools would track individual students through their data systems.

The problem with this idea is that school data systems aren't prepared to handle this kind of growth model, Watson said. On top of that, students who spend less than a semester at a school wouldn't earn any credits, so it would be difficult to factor that in. It would also be challenging to distribute credit fairly between a school where students spent most of their time and a school that helped them graduate in five or six years.

"I'm willing to acknowledge that it's messy to come up with a system that's more fair than just the four-year cohort," Watson said.

States could make the existing system a bit more fair for virtual and alternative schools by considering other measures along with the graduation rate, Watson said. If a school's graduation rate is low, then state leaders could look at the school's mobility stats, their extended graduation rate and potentially students' growth over time.

Last year, Marshall PASS Institute graduated 70 out of 152 students. This school has taken in students who seemed unlikely to graduate and helped them succeed. Brown-Robinson remembers one of her first students, a 17-year-old girl who had socio-economic problems and came into the school with two credits. Within a year and a half, she completed the program with support from a social worker and educators.

Even though this student didn't finish high school in four years, she did finish. That's the important part.