CDE Letter to ED on DASS Waivers
TONY THURMOND, State Superintendent of Public Instruction
1430 N Street Sacramento, CA 95814-5901
LINDA DARLING-HAMMOND, State Board President
1430 N Street, Room 5111, Sacramento, CA 95814
April 15, 2022
Dr. James Lane
Office of Elementary and Secondary Education
U.S. Department of Education
400 Maryland Avenue SW
Washington, DC 20202
Dear Dr. Lane:
RE: Request for waiver pursuant to Section 8401 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965
California was discouraged to receive the disapproval of an amendment request to our Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) Consolidated State Plan in a letter from your office dated January 12, 2022. California originally submitted these amendments on March 12, 2021, to allow for modified methods in our accountability system for two indicators: the Graduation Rate Indicator and Academic Achievement Indicator for alternative schools participating in California’s Dashboard Alternative School Status (DASS) program.
On behalf of the California State Board of Education (SBE) and the California Department of Education (CDE), under the authority provided in the ESEA Section 8401, we respectfully request a waiver to allow California to better evaluate the success and progress of students and schools with our DASS program. Specifically, we are requesting that the following sections be waived:
- ESEA Section 1111(c)(4)(B)(i)
- ESEA Section 1111(c)(4)(c)
- ESEA Section 1111(c)(4)(B)(iii)
California is committed to the principle of supporting and identifying low-performing schools as required by the ESEA. Our rigorous multiple measures accountability system and identification process ensure that we are devoting resources and assistance to the schools that consistently perform at the lowest end of our measurement scales. While we can be assured that these systems work well for our traditional schools, we have found that applying the same metrics to our alternative schools does not work as intended.
California serves the largest number of alternative education programs in the nation. We currently support 151,000 DASS students—about 2.5 percent of all students in California—enrolled across 1,044 DASS schools, which represent about 10 percent of California’s 10,000 total schools. Additionally, California Education Code (EC) Section 52052(d) requires the development of an alternative accountability system for schools under the jurisdiction of a county board of education or a county superintendent of schools, community day schools, and alternative schools serving high-risk pupils, including continuation high schools and opportunity schools.
In designing the California School Dashboard (Dashboard), which is used to annually report district, school, and student group performance on state and local indicators based on priority areas established in California’s Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), the SBE ensured that alternative schools and alternative schools of choice were measured on the same indicators as traditional schools; however, modified methods of measurement for accountability indicators were adopted, when appropriate, for this high-risk student population. The LCFF was signed into law in 2013 and guided our work to develop and refine an accountability system that is aligned with the ESEA and targets the neediest of schools for identification in our system of support.
Participation in the DASS program is limited by certain eligibility requirements. Many DASS schools are also alternative schools; however, not all alternative schools are DASS schools. Schools are identified as "alternative" through the following methods.
Defined Alternative Schools
The school has a school type identified in EC Section 52052(d) that automatically qualifies the school for inclusion in the DASS program. The school types identified in EC Section 52052(d) are as follows:
- County or District Community Day
- County Community
- Juvenile Court
- California Education Authority, Division of Juvenile Justice
- County-Run Special Education Schools
In addition, district-operated special education schools that administer the California Alternate Assessment (CAA) to at least 70 percent of their students enrolled in grades three through eight and grade eleven are automatically placed into DASS. District-operated special education schools with less than 70 percent of students participating in the CAA must apply for DASS status if they wish to be considered a DASS school in California’s accountability system.
Other Alternative Schools
Other alternative schools are schools that serve high-risk students but are not explicitly required to do so in the EC. These include: (1) alternative schools of choice and (2) charter schools that serve high-risk students. These schools must have at least 70 percent of the school's total enrollment comprised of high-risk student groups to be eligible for DASS. The high-risk groups include the following:
- Expelled (EC Section 48925[b]), including situations in which enforcement of the expulsion order was suspended (EC Section 48917)
- Suspended (EC Section 48925[d]) more than 10 days in a school year
- Wards of the Court (Welfare and Institution Code [WIC] Section 601 or 602) or dependents of the court (WIC Section 300 or 654)
- Pregnant and/or Parenting
- Recovered Dropouts—SBE defines recovered dropouts based on EC Section 52052.3(b) as students who: (1) are designated as dropouts pursuant to the exit and withdraw codes in the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System (CALPADS), or (2) left school and were not enrolled in a school for a period of 180 days
- Habitually Truant (EC Section 48262) or Habitually Insubordinate and Disorderly whose attendance at the school is directed by a school attendance review board or probation officer (EC Section 48263)
- Retained more than once in kindergarten through grade eight
- Students who are credit deficient (i.e., students who are one semester or more behind in the credits required to graduate on-time, per grade level, from the enrolling school’s credit requirements)
- Students with a gap in enrollment (i.e., students who have not been in any school during the 45 days prior to enrollment in the current school, where the 45 days does not include non-instructional days such as summer break, holiday break, off-track, and other days when a school is closed)
- Students with high level transiency (i.e., students who have been enrolled in more than two schools during the past academic year or have changed secondary schools more than two times since entering high school)
- Foster Youth (EC Section 42238.01[b])
- Homeless Youth
Schools that meet the "other alternative schools" criteria above must apply for DASS status and are required to re-certify their high-risk student enrollment every three years. If a school fails to re-certify its high-risk student enrollment or the school's enrollment of high-risk students falls below 70 percent, the school is removed from the DASS program.
The most recent number of the schools in California’s DASS program by eligibility criteria is shown in Table 1.
Table 1: Current DASS Program Participation by Eligibility Criteria
|Eligibility Criteria||Number and Percent of Schools|
|Automatically Assigned by School Type||835 (80%)|
|District-operated special education schools with at least 70 percent of students eligible for the CAA||39 (4%)|
|Applied via the DASS Application Process||170 (16%)|
|Total Number of DASS Schools||1,044 (100%)|
Development of DASS and California-Specific Research
California invested intense resources into documenting how we educate our students in alternative settings and monitor their outcomes in collaboration with experts at the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities (Gardner Center) at Stanford University and countless other educators. The Gardner Center began focusing specifically on alternative youth in California, beginning in 2008, with a study that found alternative school youth are a highly vulnerable population characterized by multiple risk behaviors and other nonacademic learning barriers (Ruiz de Velasco et al., 2008)1. These students benefit significantly from specialized settings that help them address their specific needs at their own pace.
In 2015, a report by the California Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) also helped influence the development of the DASS program. The LAO report concluded that California’s then-current federal school accountability system (Adequate Yearly Progress) was failing to address alternative school needs in that it neither established clear long-term objectives nor set relevant shorter-term performance expectations for these schools (California LAO, 2015)2. Additionally, the LAO report underscored the importance of ensuring that performance data and accountability reports be made available for alternative schools so that the state could identify schools in need of added support.
The introduction of the DASS program allowed California to commit to holding alternative schools to the same state indicators as traditional schools (i.e., Graduation Rate, College/Career, Suspension Rate, Chronic Absenteeism Rate, Academic, and English Learner Progress Indicators) while also evaluating the measurement validity within each state indicator for that particular group of students. Under preliminary examination, CDE was able to evaluate whether the measures of these indicators were meaningful and appropriate for assessing alternative school performance in California. After this rigorous process, it was determined that the Graduation and Academic Indicators did not fairly evaluate the success or progress of students in alternative schools and therefore would need modified measures in order to be valid within our accountability system. Furthermore, because students with these specific challenges tend to be concentrated within DASS schools, holding those schools to the same standards as their counterparts would put DASS schools in an inescapable cycle of being identified for improvement simply because of the student population they enroll. The focus on improving student test scores would take time and attention away from what these schools do best—provide a safe and supportive environment for students most at risk.
California Advisory Taskforce on Alternative Schools
In response to the LAO report and findings by the CDE, the California Advisory Taskforce on Alternative Schools (the Taskforce) was convened with the support of the Gardner Center in spring 2017. The Taskforce membership represented administrators and educators from a cross-section of county offices of education, school districts, and charter schools. The members were also active members of California’s various professional organizations, including the Association of California School Administrators, the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association, the California Continuation Education Association, the California Consortium for Independent Study, and the Reaching At-Promise Students Association—a nonprofit collaborative of charter schools that serve at-risk students.
Over a three-year period, the Taskforce, or smaller Taskforce workgroups, met 17 times to assist the CDE to develop the DASS frameworks and metrics for including these schools in our accountability system. The Taskforce also adopted the following principles to help guide the development of the DASS program3:
Taskforce Guiding Principles
A strong accountability system for alternative schools will:
- Ensure that the emerging DASS model includes accountability for all students in alternative options programs and settings;
- Ensure that measures are appropriate to schools that enroll youth who are at risk of dropping out of school;
- Include clear and transparent measures that promise to inform school and system improvement and to promote organizational learning;
- Create incentives for school capacity-building, community partnerships, and expanded learning opportunities in support of student academic success and positive youth development; and
- Foster equity by making the alternative education sector, its students, and outcomes more visible to policymakers, stakeholders, and the public. This includes:
- Better district, county, and state reporting of total cumulative enrollment and system size (i.e., the number of DASS schools and total census and cumulative unduplicated annual enrollment in DASS schools by district type); and
- Promoting more publicly available information on student groups (including all student groups identified by the CDE as high risk for dropping out of school).
As is clearly demonstrated in these principles, California remains committed to serving all students and identifying schools that serve the neediest students through measures that are appropriate to this population of schools. Over the course of the multi-year planning process, the Taskforce was instrumental in assisting the CDE to develop a definition of alternative schools as described in the Eligibility section. Additionally, the Taskforce provided valuable feedback and policy advice that ultimately led to the development of the DASS modified methods that were adopted by the SBE for the Graduate Rate and Academic Indicators.
Modified Methods for DASS Schools
DASS schools are designed to meet the needs of credit-deficient and other youth who face barriers to learning and who are at risk of dropping out before completing the minimum requirements for a regular high school diploma. Given the extraordinary challenges these students face, the SBE agreed that adopting modified methods for the Graduation Rate and Academic Indicators was imperative for evaluating the success and progress of these vulnerable populations more fairly.
For the reasons articulated in the prompts required by the ESEA, we urge you to approve California’s waiver pursuant to the following:
A. Identify the Federal programs affected by the requested waiver.
Title I, Part A.
B. Describe which Federal statutory or regulatory requirements are to be waived.
California is seeking a waiver for the following statutory requirements:
- ESEA Section 1111(c)(4)(B)(i):
For all public schools in the State, based on the long-term goals established under subparagraph (A), academic achievement as measured by proficiency on the annual assessments required under subsection (b)(2)(B)(v)(I); and at the State’s discretion, for each public high school in the State, student growth, as measured by such annual assessments.
- ESEA Section 1111(c)(4)(c):
Requires that a State include all public schools in its system of annual meaningful differentiation, which must be based on all indicators in the State’s accountability system under section 1111(c)(4)(B) of the ESEA.
- ESEA Section 1111(c)(4)(B)(iii):
For public high schools in the State, and based on State-designed long-term goals established under subparagraph (A) the four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate; and at the State’s discretion, the extended-year adjusted cohort graduation rate.
C. Describe how the waiving of such requirements will advance student academic achievement.
DASS schools include, but are not limited to, continuation schools, county or district community day schools, juvenile court schools, and county- and district-run special education schools and are specifically designed to provide opportunities to accelerate academic growth.
Modified Graduation Rate
As described above, students attending DASS schools are high-risk and off-track from being able to graduate on-time in four years and, as such, their schools require modified measurement to better understand how these students are being served. The four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate (ACGR) does not provide a meaningful measurement of progress for these vulnerable youth and for the schools that serve them.
The DASS Graduation Rate appropriately acknowledges the efforts that students have made to graduate from high school in spite of the educational gaps that afflict them when they first enrolled at an alternative school. It also reflects the support offered by DASS schools to encourage students to successfully reach graduation. The DASS Graduation Rate is an extended multi-year ACGR that includes students who graduate from high school in one or more additional years beyond their cohort’s original four years. This rate includes students who graduate in their fourth, fifth, or sixth year of high school.
Traditional schools are not equipped in the way that DASS schools are to support and incentivize at-risk students to complete high school and succeed beyond graduation. Therefore, when discussing options with parents, local educational agencies have often referred to the DASS graduation rate as a measure of what DASS schools can accomplish with their students beyond a four-year graduation timeframe. This in turn helps schools demonstrate to parents and students the importance of continuing the progress toward academic achievement. This rate also accurately assesses and gauges a DASS school’s ability to provide the necessary services needed to promote a student’s learning growth.
Modified Academic Indicator
Modifications to the Academic Indicator cut scores were developed in collaboration with our educational partners as many DASS schools were earning a “Very Low” level for current reporting year (or Status) results. Given that students enroll at these schools with poor academic skills, the low performance on the standardized tests is not surprising. Furthermore, unlike students in traditional schools, DASS students are enrolled for a relatively short time (e.g., average two to three months in juvenile court schools). Thus, DASS schools have a limited timeframe in which to address students’ academic needs.
Upon reviewing the distribution of standardized test results with various interest groups, determinations were made to keep the high expectation of academic achievement for all schools. Only the lowest two Status levels (i.e., Low and Very Low) were modified. The higher levels (i.e., Medium, High, and Very High) were not adjusted. Furthermore, the Change component of the state’s accountability system (or the comparison against prior year performance) was not modified as these distributions were not markedly different from traditional schools. This points to the academic gains that are being made in alternative schools, especially with students who remain enrolled for a longer period of time. Maintaining the same Change cut scores for DASS schools reflects the expectations of the continuous improvement model under California’s accountability system and the expectation of positive Change and growth.
Having realistic Status cut scores for two levels provides data that can be used to better assess which schools are truly low-performing rather than making judgments on data that are highly misleading. The adjusted cut scores provide effective academic information on these schools and answers the question of whether these schools are providing enough options to ensure that student progress is being made.
Impact on Comprehensive Support and Improvement Identification
California is committed to supporting the current ESEA guidelines to identify both traditional and alternative schools for comprehensive support and improvement. California identified 355 schools for Comprehensive Support and Improvement (CSI) using the DASS system and its modified methods in 2019.
However, without applying modified measures to the Graduation Rate Indicator and the Academic Achievement Indicator for DASS schools, the number of DASS schools that are eligible for CSI increases significantly. Tables 2 and 3 compare the eligibility for CSI—Low Graduation Rate and CSI—Low Performing between DASS and non-DASS schools in 2019 with these modified methods applied to DASS schools.
Table 2: 2019 CSI—Low Graduation Rate Eligibility by School Type (With Modified Methods for DASS Schools)
|School Type||Number of Schools Eligible||Total Number of Schools with Graduation Data||Percent of Schools Eligible|
Table 3: 2019 CSI—Low Performing Eligibility by School Type (With Modified Methods for DASS Schools)
|School Type||Number of Schools Eligible||Total Number of Schools in the Eligibility Pool||Percent of Schools Eligible|
In 2019, California identified 236 out of 845 DASS schools (27.9 percent) for CSI—Low Graduation Rate and 119 out of 162 DASS schools (73.5 percent) for CSI—Low Performing. This is a stark contrast to the 3.5 percent and 4.9 percent of non-DASS schools that were identified for CSI—Low Graduation Rate and CSI—Low Performing, respectively.
Had the modified measures not been available for DASS schools, California would have identified an additional 119 DASS schools for CSI as shown in Tables 4 and 5. The number of DASS schools that are eligible under CSI—Low Graduation Rate increases significantly from 27.9 percent to 42.4 percent. Again, the eligibility of non-DASS schools remain at 3.5 percent for CSI—Low Graduation Rate and 4.9 percent for CSI—Low Performing.
Table 4: 2019 CSI—Low Graduation Rate Eligibility by School Type (Without Modified Methods for DASS Schools)
|School Type||Number of Schools Eligible||Total Number of Schools with Graduation Data||Percent of Schools Eligible|
Table 5: 2019 CSI—Low Performing Eligibility by School Type (Without Modified Methods for DASS Schools)
|School Type||Number of Schools Eligible||Total Number of Schools with Graduation Data||Percent of Schools Eligible|
D. Describe the methods the State educational agency, local educational agency, school, or Indian tribe will use to monitor and regularly evaluate the effectiveness of the implementation of the plan.
The California School Dashboard (Dashboard) serves as the primary accountability platform by which schools, districts, and the public receive an annual indication of performance and comparative progress from the prior year. DASS schools are held accountable on all Dashboard indicators and may be selected for federal program monitoring every two years. Appropriately reflecting the progress of DASS schools, as measured by graduation cohorts and academic standards that accurately demonstrate the effectiveness of alternative schools, increases the precision of schools in program monitoring.
When the SBE initially adopted and set performance standards for state indicators aligned with the requirements under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the SBE members and interest groups raised concerns that the new accountability system did not fairly evaluate the success or progress of alternative schools that serve high-risk students. As a result, in 2017, the SBE directed the CDE to develop indicators for alternative schools that would evaluate these schools’ accomplishments based on the LCFF state priorities and accountability requirements in the ESSA.
Following this directive, the California Advisory Task Force on Alternative Schools was formed in the spring of 2017, through a project of the Gardner Center. This coordinated effort with Stanford University has allowed the state to learn from education practitioners and tap into the latest research on improving the quality of services provided to students. As the state built out modified indicators for alternative schools, the CDE also sought feedback from a broad range of interest groups, including researchers, university staff, and school and local educational agency staff. This deliberate feedback process has allowed California to develop and implement modified indicators that result in data that are referred to and used by the education community across the state. As DASS schools constitute 10 percent of all schools, every region in California has a responsibility and vested interest to improve high-risk students’ outcomes and ensure their successful transition between K–12 and postsecondary education. As a result, California’s request to hold DASS schools accountable to a one-year graduation rate and alternative academic cut scores is strongly supported by multiple interest groups.
It is important to note (per our ESSA State Plan) that the SBE has established a seven-year timeline for schools and student groups to reach long-term goals. At the end of each seven-year cycle, the SBE is set to revise the performance levels for indicators, which further ensures that all schools, including DASS, are progressing. Furthermore, when California’s accountability system was approved by the SBE in May 2016, the SBE also established an annual review process of the Dashboard. The annual review process includes reviewing each indicator and performance standard to consider necessary changes or improvements based on newly available data, recent research, and/or feedback from educational partners. This process allows for a gradual and deliberate approach to improving the indicators and incorporating changes prior to the annual release of the Dashboard each fall. It also prevents the occurrence of long-term learning stagnation and ensures that schools are continually moving forward in an upward trajectory. While the COVID-19 pandemic may have disrupted this timeline, the long-term and annual review processes ensure that the DASS Graduation Rate for the Graduation Rate Indicator and alternative cut scores for the Academic Achievement Indicator are being constantly reviewed for adjustments to ensure school improvement.
E. Describe how schools will continue to provide assistance to the same populations served by programs for which waivers are requested and, if the waiver relates to provisions of subsections (b) or (h) of section 1111, describe how the State educational agency, local educational agency, school, or Indian tribe will maintain or improve transparency in reporting to parents and the public on student achievement and school performance, including the achievement of the subgroups of students identified in section 1111(b)(2)(B)(xi).
As noted earlier, DASS schools often refer to the DASS Graduation Rate Indicator and Academic Indicator results based on modified cut scores during conversations with parents. They also refer to these data with their local governing boards. Because the Dashboard results are reflective of not only the overall school results but detail additional data for 13 student groups, these schools are able to continually provide transparency on their students’ performance. They are also able to identify any student groups that need the most assistance.
State Board of Education Waiver Approval and Public Comment
The DASS program, since its inception, has enjoyed strong support from the SBE, practitioners, and advocates. This is demonstrated in the SBE’s approval for this waiver and public comment received for this waiver.
Specifically, on March 9, 2022, the SBE unanimously approved Item 4, which requested the submission of this waiver. Additionally, two policy advisory groups to the SBE, the Advisory Commission on Special Education and California Practitioners Advisory Group, were both supportive of California submitting this waiver.
A public comment period was held between March 1 through March 30, 2022. During this public comment period, 17 comments were received, and all were in support of California’s continued use of the DASS modified measures. The public comment notification was sent out through various CDE listservs and was put on the CDE’s ESSA web page. The public comments received by the CDE have been summarized and submitted along with this application package.
California appreciates your review of this waiver request to assist our most promising student populations. For additional information regarding this request, please contact Joseph Saenz, Federal Policy Liaison, Government Affairs Division, by telephone at 916-591-6391 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction
California Department of Education
California State Board of Education
1Ruiz de Velasco, J., Austin, G., Dixon, D., Johnson, J., McLaughlin, M., & Perez, L. (2008). Alternative Education Options: A Descriptive Study of California Continuation High Schools. An Issue Brief from the California Alternative Education Research Project.
3John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities. (2020). Report and recommendations of the California Advisory Task Force on Alternative Schools. Stanford, CA: John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities.