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Alternative Education Accountability: Kentucky's Approach

By Leon Swarts

The number of alternative education programs in Kentucky has dramatically increased over the past five years in conjunction with safe schools legislation passed in 1998 (Kentucky Department of Education, 2001). There are now more than 150 alternative education programs that provide nontraditional curriculum, instruction, and assessment strategies for students having difficulty succeeding in traditional education settings (Swarts, 2002). Programs are structured at elementary and secondary levels (middle and high schools) either as schools-within-schools or in separate facilities on-site or off-site, and often provide therapeutic behavioral intervention. Kentucky defines an alternative school as "a district-operated and district-controlled facility with no definable attendance boundaries that is designed to provide services to at-risk populations with unique needs. Its population composition and characteristics change frequently and are controlled by the school district student assignment practices and policies" (703 KAR 4:080). Intervention services include "any preventive, developmental, corrective, supportive services or treatment provided to a student who is at risk of school failure, is at risk of participation in violent behavior or juvenile crime, or has been expelled from the school district" (KRS 158.44, (2), (1).

Many of Kentucky's alternative programs serve students with disabilities as well as students without disabilities. As in other states, the primary disability category of students with disabilities enrolled in alternative schools in Kentucky is most often a learning or emotional-behavioral disability. Although it is clear that alternative schools in Kentucky serve students with disabilities, the percentage of students with disabilities attending these schools is not known because the state does not currently collect this information. Critical concerns related to alternative education in Kentucky and students with disabilities include availability and quality of special education staff, provision of appropriate services and supports for these students, and maintaining high, yet attainable, academic expectations and standards for learning.

The Importance of Accountability Measures for Alternative Education

The importance of clearly documenting measures of effectiveness and student success in alternative schools is gaining increased attention. Since the implementation of education-based reforms such as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and zero tolerance policies, there is an increased need and demand for alternative schools to be held accountable for student progress and improved outcomes. Because funding is increasingly tied to student progress, documenting and measuring these outcomes is of utmost importance.

A preliminary comparison of academic and non-academic outcomes for traditional schools and alternative education programs in Kentucky at the elementary, middle, and high school levels was conducted using data from 1999-2001. The data showed that for students in alternative schools, academic performance was nearly 30% lower, attendance was 20% lower, the rate of dropout was 23% higher, the number of students retained at grade level was 9% higher, and transition to adult life (as measured by transition to postsecondary education, work, or military service) was 4% lower (Swarts, 2002). To gather further information about these results, to document the performance of alternative schools at a systems level, and to foster self-study, an evaluation tool for use with alternative programs was developed by the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE), called the Alternative Education Program Evaluation Instrument.

The Alternative Education Program Evaluation Instrument was developed based on a comprehensive review of national, state, and alternative education literature on standards and indicators. The Kentucky Department of Education Standards and Indicators for School Improvement was the primary resource used to develop the instrument to evaluate alternative education programs in Kentucky. These standards and indicators are part of Kentucky's movement toward academic proficiency for all schools and students by 2014. In addition, indicators from the National Study of School Evaluation (NSSE) were used as a secondary resource for development of the instrument. After incorporating the information from the national and state level standards, it became clear that additional standards specific to alternative education programs (i.e., highly structured classrooms, mentoring, and behavior management plans) were needed to capture the complexity of these settings and address their goals (Tobin & Sprague, 1999). A review of alternative education literature was conducted to identify specific alternative education research-based systems and strategies. These strategies were then aligned with the national and KDE indicators to yield a comprehensive set of standards and indicators that could be used to evaluate alternative education programs in Kentucky. The intent was to gather information that can provide clear direction for staff and school/program changes that may influence student outcomes.

Description of Alternative Education Program Evaluation Instrument

The evaluation instrument includes standards that are organized into three domains. Each domain includes three standards (a total of nine) with 58 indicators. Descriptions of the standards for each domain are included along with a sample indicator that is relevant to alternative education programs in Kentucky (see Table 1).


Table 1: Alternative Education Program Evaluation Instrument

Standard (including description)

Sample Alternative Education Indicator

Academic Performance Domain

Curriculum – Rigorous, intentional, and aligned curriculum is used and meets state and local standards.

High quality academic instruction includes control for difficulty of instruction, small interactive groups, and direct response/questioning of students.

Assessment – Multiple evaluation and assessment strategies are used to continuously monitor and modify instruction to meet student needs and support proficient student work.

Individualized behavioral interventions are based on functional behavioral assessments to identify causes of behavior, why they persist, replacement behaviors, student interview/involvement, and use of multi-component interventions that influence student learning.

Instruction – All students are engaged by using effective, varied and research-based practices.

High-quality diagnostic instruction that has value, meaning and relevance for students.

Learning Environment Domain

Culture – An effective learning community supports a climate conducive to performance excellence.

Low ratio of students to teachers offers more personal time for students, better behavioral gains, and higher quality instruction.

Student, Family, and Community Support - Families and community groups work together to remove barriers to learning in an effort to meet the intellectual, social, career, and developmental needs of all students.

Counseling, social services, and health assistance are available for all students on a regular basis (i.e., career preparation, behavioral assessment, management, and guidance services).

Professional Development, Professional Growth and Evaluation – Research-based and results driven professional development opportunities for staff and performance evaluation procedures are used to improve teaching and learning.

Professional development includes training in behavior management strategies/assessment, mentorship use, social skills instruction, and academic performance (i.e., curriculum instruction and assessment).

Efficiency Domain

Leadership – Instructional decisions focus on support for teaching and learning, organizational direction, high performance expectations, creating a learning culture, and developing leadership capacity.

Leadership reinforces the program mission, beliefs, goals, rules, and routines.

Organizational Structure and Resources – Maximum use of all available resources to support high student and staff performance.

Emphasis on high-quality academic instruction to measure student academic gains, behavioral gains, and student outcomes (i.e., attendance, grades, credits).

Comprehensive and Effective Planning – Includes the development, implementation, and evaluation plan that communicates a clear purpose, direction, and focus on teaching and learning.

Safety, crisis management plans, and strategies exist (i.e., documents procedures established).


An alternative education specialist who has been trained to understand and score the standards and indicators evaluates each alternative school. Evaluators are typically assigned to evaluate programs by region. A one-day site review includes visiting classrooms; observing teachers; interviewing students and staff; and reviewing assessment data, program plans, lesson plans and curriculum. Each indicator is rated using a rubric that specifies the degree to which it has been met (i.e., no, partial, yes). These ratings are converted to a numeric rating scale that can then be averaged to yield a score for each indicator across schools. Similarly, each standard is rated on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 = no evidence of development, 5 = exemplary level of development and implementation), and can yield an average score for each standard across schools. These scores can be used by individual schools, grouped across schools with similar philosophies, or grouped statewide to determine areas of strength and need. Program improvement and progress across indicators can be measured over time by reviewing the annual evaluation data.

Results and Next Steps

Thus far, evaluation data have been gathered for two years, 2001-2002 and 2002-2003. During the first year, 66 programs were evaluated, and during the second year 42 programs were evaluated (for a total of 108 programs). These program reviews are part of an annual review process conducted by the Kentucky Department of Education and the Kentucky Center for School Safety. Preliminary results show that alternative education programs in Kentucky received the highest overall ratings on the standards representing Culture (Learning Environment Domain), Leadership, and Comprehensive and Effective Planning (Efficiency Domain). The standards of Assessment, Curriculum, and Instruction (Academic Performance Domain) received the lowest overall average ratings. These ratings remained relatively stable over time and across samples from two different years. These results suggest that the validity of the evaluation instrument is possible, the reliability of the data is developing, and the possibility of generalization exists.

Findings from this effort show that a standards-based instrument can be developed and used to evaluate individual and/or collective alternative education programs. The tool can gather valuable information and be used for multiple purposes, including designing and developing alternative education programs; pinpointing professional development needs; and reporting information to boards of education, community groups, and parents. This instrument can also be used to target specific standards and/or indicators to make program improvement recommendations that can influence student outcomes. Over time, as baseline data accumulate, trends in high and low performing standards will become evident. Examining high performing schools will assist in understanding essential characteristics that foster student success. This information can then be used to implement changes in lower performing schools, provide valuable data to increase the effectiveness of alternative education programs, and improve outcomes for students with and without disabilities



Kentucky Department of Education. (2001). Alternative education program resource guide. Frankfort, KY: Author.

Swarts, L. (2002). An investigation of alternative education programs in Kentucky. Unpublished manuscript. Available from Kentucky Department of Education at

Tobin, T. & Sprague, J. (1999, Summer). Alternative education programs for at-risk youth: Issues, best practices, and recommendations. Eugene OR: University of Oregon, Oregon School Study Council.

Leon Swarts is Training and Data Analyst for At-Risk Programs, Eastern Kentucky University, Richmond. He may be reached at 859/622-8539 or


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Citation: Gaylord, V., Johnson, D.R., Lehr, C.A., Bremer, C.D. & Hasazi, S. (Eds.). (2004). Impact: Feature Issue on Achieving Secondary Education and Transition Results for Students with Disabilities, 16(3). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration. Available from


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