Brief The Students Alternative Schools Serve
Adam Kho, Sarah Rabovsky
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Though alternative schools—such as vocational, special education, and traditional alternative schools—are a common education intervention for students who struggle at traditional schools, they have often been excluded from education policies and research. Increasingly, the limited accountability oversight of the alternative school sector has led to allegations of students being pushed out of mainstream schools to alternative schools to avoid accountability. As states establish accountability measures more appropriate for highly mobile students in alternative schools, we need to understand the students who attend these schools to address their needs and promote educational equity.

Key Data

  • Around 800,000 students, or 1.6 percent of all students, are enrolled in alternative schools.
  • Alternative schools disproportionately serve students in urban settings; only 30 percent of mainstream school students attend urban schools, but 45 percent of alternative school students attend urban schools.
  • Fifty-seven percent of students in alternative schools are male, compared with 51 percent of students in mainstream schools.
  • Nineteen percent and 34 percent of alternative school students are Black and Hispanic, respectively, compared with 15 percent and 27 percent in mainstream schools.
  • Nearly 9 percent of alternative high school students are English learners, while 6 percent attend mainstream schools.
  • The share of students with disabilities in alternative schools (29 percent) is more than double the share in mainstream schools (13 percent).


The alternative sector serves disproportionately high numbers of Black and Hispanic, special education, English learner, and male students, all student historically underserved by the education system. Though these schools provide traditionally underserved students with another avenue for academic success, students in the alternative sector are largely missing from the accountability systems intended to address educational inequity. And key challenges of accountability implementation in alternative schools include the high level of alternative school student mobility and the varying education goals of alternative school students. 

To help address these challenges, some states are experimenting with modified measures of effectiveness to track alternative school performance. Some states have moved toward computing a graduation rate for only 12th-graders at alternative schools; others are emphasizing other measures of academic achievement for alternative schools, such as course completion. Many of these efforts are still in progress, and the varying goals of alternative school students raise questions on the appropriateness of the comparison of alternative schools not only with mainstream schools but with each other. There is also a concern that a heightened focus on academic outcomes could minimize support services that alternative school administrators cite as critical for many of their students.

Given these challenges of establishing consistent measures of effectiveness among highly mobile and vulnerable students with varying educational goals, a continued effort to better understand both the statistical trends for alternative school students and the story behind them is an essential step toward ensuring equitable opportunities.

Additional Resources

Research Areas Education Children and youth
Tags K-12 education Racial equity in education
Policy Centers Center on Education Data and Policy