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BUILDING A GRAD NATION: Alternative, Charter, and Virtual High Schools “Disproportionately Represented” Among Low-Graduation-Rate High Schools, According to New Report

One subset of schools that the report specifically calls out is comprised of alternative, charter, and virtual high schools, which only account for about 14 percent of high schools nationwide but make up 52 percent of the high schools with graduation rates at or below 67 percent.

The national high school graduation rate (82.3 percent) is at an all-time high, but the United States is no longer on track to post a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020, according to the 2016 Building a Grad Nation report. The report, by Civic Enterprises and the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University, in partnership with America’s Promise Alliance and the Alliance for Excellent Education is the seventh annual update on the progress and challenges in raising high school graduation rates.

“When it comes to increasing high school graduation rates nationwide, it is clear that important progress has been made and there is genuine cause to celebrate,” the report notes. “At the same time, it is evident that in pockets across the country, there is a need to re-examine whether the decisions being made are ultimately in the best interest of students.”

One subset of schools that the report specifically calls out is comprised of alternative, charter, and virtual high schools, which only account for about 14 percent of high schools nationwide but make up 52 percent of the high schools with graduation rates at or below 67 percent.

“Many of these schools exist to serve a vulnerable student population, and therefore deal with significant challenges,” said Robert Balfanz, research scientist and codirector of the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. “That’s why it’s so important that educators identify struggling students at the beginning of their high school careers and provide the things all students need to be successful, including the chance to build relationships with caring adults, strong and tailored instruction, and opportunities to engage in learning experiences that connect school to life.”

As shown in the table below from the report, “regular” district high schools—those that are operated by a public school district and are neither a charter nor a virtual school—fare very well overall. They have an average adjusted cohort graduation rate (ACGR) of 85 percent and make up only 7 percent of the nation’s “low-graduation-rate high schools,” which are high schools with a graduation rate of 67 percent or less.

Low Graduation Rate High Schools High Graduation Rate High Schools and Average ACGR by School Type 2014

“This puts a laser-like focus on the roughly 1,000 regular district high schools that have low graduation rates,” the report notes. “And in states where the percentage of these schools [is] 33 percent [or less], it provides a clear road map of where state resources should be focused for improvement.”

Alternative high schools—85 percent of which are operated by the school district in which they are located—fare far worse, with an average graduation rate of 52 percent. According to the report, these high schools often serve as temporary or permanent facilities for students with discipline problems, chronic absenteeism, and other personal and/or academic issues who are either sent to or choose to continue at a non-traditional high school.

At the same time, the report also questions whether these high schools, which act as the “last best hope” for students who have struggled to stay on track to graduation, sometimes serve as a dumping ground for students who are “inappropriately pushed” into alternative high schools, especially because these schools enroll a disproportionate percentage of students from low-income families and students of color. It notes that 56 percent of students attending alternative high schools were from low-income families, compared to 48 percent of students attending regular schools. Additionally, 60 percent of students at alternative schools were of color, compared to 40 percent of students at regular schools.

Of the seventeen states with more than ten district-run alternative high schools, only two had significant percentages of these schools with graduation rates above 67 percent: California, where 86 percent of district-run alternative high schools have a graduation rate above 67 percent, and North Carolina, where 57 percent met this criterion. In Minnesota, 100 percent of the state’s twenty-eight alternative district high schools had a graduation rate of 67 percent or less. “In Florida, New York, Idaho, and Michigan, at least nine out of ten alternative high schools fail to graduate one-third or more of students in four years,” the report notes.

Acknowledging that there are charter high schools “with strong outcomes for low-income and minority students,” the report finds that these schools have “mixed results” regarding graduation rates. Overall, 30 percent of charter schools have graduation rates at or below 67 percent, but 44 percent have graduation rates of 85 percent or higher.

“More than any other school type, charter high schools tend to either do every well or very poorly in graduating their students,” the report notes. “Thus, the challenge is to keep and spread the successful models while finding means to reform or replace the struggling ones.”

On virtual schools, however, the report finds few signs of success. Of the 178 regular virtual schools in twenty-four states that enroll 100 students or more and report graduation rates, only 4 percent have a graduation rate of 85 percent or higher while 87 percent report a graduation rate at or below 67 percent. These schools—where instruction is carried out completely online—represent just 1 percent of all high schools but 7 percent of low-graduation-rate high schools.

The report is careful to note that the data for alternative, charter, and virtual schools only represents those schools that report a graduation rate. In many instances, these schools “fall through the cracks” in district and state accountability systems because they are authorized by entities other than the school district in which they are located or from which they draw students.

“In these cases, it can be harder to hold these schools accountable for outcomes and may also provide a tempting means for school districts seeking to raise graduation rates to meet their own accountability pressures,” the report notes. “In most states, students who transfer from district schools to alternative, charter, or virtual schools that are not authorized by the school district … are not only removed from the cohort of their initial school (where, in fact, they may have fallen off track to graduation), but they are also removed from the school district’s cohort as well.”

For this reason, the report recommends that states not be permitted to exclude alternative, charter, and virtual schools from the statewide accountability and improvement systems that are required under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the nation’s new education law that replaced the No Child Left Behind Act. “Effective alternative schools serving vulnerable student populations should be praised,” the report notes, stating that “ineffective alternative schools should be held accountable.”

Overall, the report finds that there are nearly 2,400 high schools, or 13 percent of high schools nationwide, that enroll 100 or more students that have graduation rates at or below 67 percent. Of that total, 54 percent are in cities, while 26 percent exist in suburbs, 12 percent are in rural areas, and 8 percent exist in towns.[1] On the bright side, more than 11,000 high schools (60.7 percent) have graduation rates of 85 percent or higher. “For every low-graduation-rate high school in the nation, there are more than four high-graduation-rate high schools,” the report notes.

As shown in the image below taken from the report, Alaska (43 percent) and New Mexico (40 percent) have the highest percentage of low-graduation-rate high schools in the nation.

States With The Highest Percentage of Low Graduation Rate High Schools 2014

In addition to the slowing increases in the overall high school graduation rate, the report flags persistent graduation rate gaps between white students and African American and Latino students, as well as those between low-income and non–low-income students, and students with and without disabilities. The report also notes that increasing graduation rates “are not always translating into more students who are well prepared for postsecondary education and careers.”

For more information on the 2016 Building a Grad Nation report, including state data tables and interactive maps and charts, visit


[1] See for an explanation of the different locales.

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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.