Saturday, April 21, 2018

Do Washington's "Alternative Learning Experience" programs help students? State audit can't say

Posted By on Sat, Apr 21, 2018 at 12:00 PM

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The Washington state Auditor's Office has released a final report on student outcomes in so-called "Alternative Learning Experience" courses — courses, often online, involving some level of instruction away from traditional public school.

The grade? Incomplete.

Citing a lack of available data from the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), the Auditor's Office could not evaluate student success in ALE programs as mandated by the state Legislature in 2013.

"We identified data challenges that meant we were unable to measure student outcomes in a quantitative way," says Kathleen Cooper, spokeswoman for the state Auditor's Office.

In Washington state, more than 30,000 K-12 students attend ALE programs either part time or full time. The programs are funded by the state. Last year, the Inlander reported how for-profit companies came to dominate the landscape of online education in Washington, while delivering poor student outcomes. Those online schools are considered ALE programs.

School districts can attract students to their ALE programs even if the students are from another part of the state, boosting that district's enrollment numbers and sometimes allowing them to balance their budget.

But are those ALE programs effective?

That's a question OSPI and the Auditor's Office can't answer with evidence. It's partly because they're so different, from not only traditional schools, but from each other. An ALE program can be a simple credit-recovery course, or it can be a full-time online school. That makes it harder to separate ALE students from traditional students, since they can be both.

And that means auditors couldn't effectively measure ALE graduation rates or other individual outcomes.

Instead, lacking reliable data, the auditors visited eight ALE programs, held focus groups and surveyed students. Representatives from ALE programs themselves, of course, told the auditors that the programs provided "flexibility" and new approaches to students seeking an alternative to traditional school.

"Our qualitative analysis shows the professionals who work within these programs believe they do help increase individual student success," Cooper says.

This isn't the first time the Auditor's Office pointed out issues with data for ALE programs. Its first report after the 2013 mandate was supposed to assess 2013-14 ALE students. But then, too, it found problems with the data system managed by OSPI called the Comprehensive Education Data and Research System (CEDARS): Of the districts with ALE programs, 65 percent claimed more ALE funding than the actual number of students.

The ALE staff told the state auditors that it was a misunderstanding of reporting requirements. The auditors have recommended that OSPI ensures its CEDARS data is complete and accurate.

Nathan Olson, spokesman for OSPI, says the agency has been working with auditors on this.

"We know there are issues with data, and data collection needs to be improved," Olson says.

The report from the Auditor's Office, he says, showed that collection and reporting of accurate data is the "key stumbling block" to evaluating student success in ALE programs. OSPI says it is taking steps to address the issue, including improved communication on requirements and potentially asking the Legislature for changes to state ALE course definitions.

But OSPI, Olson says, is confident that ALE programs are effective, even without the data.

"I think we acknowledge data would help us get even more information, but we are finding they are effective," Olson says. "More students are taking the courses and they are passing the courses."
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