Thousands of Washington students get an alternative education. Is that a good thing?

Traditional schools don’t work for all students. But a national report suggests that alternative programs often fail to provide comparable rigor. And Washington state has 45,000 students enrolled in them.

Traditionally, schools are judged by graduation rates, test scores and overall student achievement. But a recent report suggests that some 500,000 kids nationwide are enrolled in publicly funded alternative programs that escape this kind of scrutiny.

At their best, alternative schools offer smaller classes, flexible schedules, extra counseling and intensive tutoring. But the report, published by ProPublica, suggests that high numbers of students in alternative education may be a red flag. And in that calculation, Washington stands out.

About 45,000 high-school students here participate in nontraditional programs — everything from dropout re-engagement schools to online course work — and their outcomes are spotty.

The ProPublica authors suggest that No Child Left Behind, with its laser emphasis on testing, turned alternative education into a “release valve” for schools with kids who struggled and might bring down overall scores.

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“No Child Left Behind was supposed to improve educational outcomes for students long overlooked — including those who were black, Hispanic and low-income,” they wrote. Yet those very students were disproportionately enrolled in alternative programs “where many found a second-tier education awaiting them.”

In Washington, alternative-school students must meet the same requirements as kids in traditional programs to graduate, said Dixie Grunenfelder, who heads secondary education at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. But for some, there are ways around taking the rigorous state tests.

The dropout re-engagement program iGrad in Kent is among these programs. Housed in a shopping-center storefront, it looks…

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