It's never OK to close a school based on a single metric

Getty Images/EdwardShackleford

Richard Vineyard

There is a healthy national debate about charter school accountability: What is the appropriate balance between performance-based measures and parental choice? There are good arguments for both viewpoints, and the charter movement will emerge stronger because of this discourse. But advocates on both sides should be troubled by a situation currently brewing in my home state of Nevada.

The Nevada State Public Charter School Authority (SPCSA) is on the verge of closing the Nevada Connections Academy (NCA), an online K–12 charter school serving 3,300 students, based on a single data point, the school’s four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate (ACGR). In an August 23 hearing, the SPCSA decided that the school’s proposed plan to cure its low graduation rate was insufficient. A further hearing was scheduled for October, at which time the SPCSA will decide whether to close the school or reconstitute the school’s board.

The SPCSA justifies the action by citing a new provision in Nevada charter law that allows but does not require a charter school authorizer to close or reconstitute the board of a charter school if it has an ACGR of less than 60 percent.

At first glance, this may seem reasonable. After all, a 60 percent graduation seems like a pretty low bar. But should this single academic metric that applies only to high schools be a justification for closing an entire K–12 school of 3,300 students? That’s exactly what the SPCSA is attempting to do.

When you dig into the details, the SPCSA’s action looks heavy-handed. It is true that the school’s four-year grad rate has been well below 60 percent for several years. The school argues quite convincingly that it’s a by-product of the fact that fully half the students in its last two graduating cohorts were already credit deficient when they came to NCA.

Knowing this, it’s no surprise—nor is it a sign of school failure—that many of NCA’s high school students don’t graduate on time. And it certainly makes no sense to close an entire K–12 school based solely on this statistic. That would be akin to holding NCA accountable for the performance of the students’ prior schools.

NCA has argued that the ACGR is a flawed metric for any school that enrolls lots of credit-deficient kids, and that the SPCSA should consider the school’s full academic performance before it decides on any closure action. It is hard to disagree.

In fact, this is precisely what the Nevada legislature intended when it declined to make the grad rate threshold an automatic trigger for school closure. It recognized that a school could be under 60 percent ACGR and still be a high performing school.

That might sound like a counterintuitive statement, but consider a high school not unlike the Nevada Connections Academy in which half of its students enroll as seniors who are a full year behind in credits. Assuming the school has sufficiently rigorous graduation requirements, none of these pupils will be able to graduate with their four-year cohort. Is this a failing school?

Answering that question requires further analysis. How did those credit deficient seniors perform? Are they engaged and accumulating credits? Did they stay for a fifth year? How are the students in grades K–8 performing?

The SPCSA has refused to ask these questions about NCA and instead is treating the school’s sub-60 percent grad rate as if it is all it needs to know. It refused to consider the substantial evidence that shows the school is performing quite well: For students who enrolled as freshman and spent four years in the school, the grad rate is 86 percent; the latest available reading proficiency rates show the school is above state average in every tested grade, and in some grades by as much as 12 percentage points; and the school’s math proficiency rates were slightly lower than state average, but not significantly.

In short, NCA is a school that is performing well within the band of acceptability in almost every academic measure—and has a legitimate explanation for the one measure it falls short on, ACGR. Yet its sponsor is using that one performance measure as the sole justification for trying to shut the school down. It’s inexplicable.

We may never know exactly what is motivating the Nevada State Public Charter School Authority, but Nevada’s charter law arguably does give them the power to do this. And this raises a very serious policy issues: Is it ever acceptable for a charter school sponsor to close a school based on a single academic metric? The answer is “no.” A school closure action should always be based on a comprehensive analysis of a school’s performance over time. But Nevada’s charter law allows a sponsor to ignore this core principle of accountability.

Advocates on all sides of the current charter school accountability debate should be very concerned about the precedent this would set.

Dr. Richard Vineyard spent seventeen years at the Nevada Department of Education. In his role of Assessment Director of the Office of Assessment, Data, & Accountability Management, he supervised the development and implementation of all state level assessments in Nevada. He also testified as an expert in a hearing on the issue described in this article, but he has no other connection to the Nevada Connections Academy. 

Editor's note: A different version of this essay was first published in The Nevada Independent.