Students file out of Maya Angelou charter school at the end of the day. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

The D.C. Public Charter School Board has adopted a new way to define “alternative schools” and judge their performance, taking an important step toward plugging a hole in the board’s system for identifying which city charter schools are serving students well and which need to either improve or be closed.

Under the charter board’s new policy, alternative schools are defined as those with a high proportion of students — at least 60 percent — who are at risk of academic failure, including those who have been incarcerated or expelled from another school, are homeless or in foster care, are pregnant or parenting, are two years older than they should be for their grade level, or are identified as having intensive special-education needs.

Three city schools appear to fit that definition: Maya Angelou Evans High, St. Coletta Special Education Public Charter School and Options Public Charter School. They and future alternative schools will work with the board to identify appropriate measurements for their students’ progress and achievement. The goal is to begin piloting the new evaluations in the 2014-15 school year and ultimately to rate alternative schools’ performance with the same performance tiers used to judge other schools.

“We do not want to lower the bar of expectations casually for any school, and we want all of these students to achieve as high as possible,” said Darren Woodruff, the board’s vice president, before a unanimous vote in favor of the policy last week.

Evaluating such schools has bedeviled charter school authorities across the country because of the tension between acknowledging the difficulty in serving students with such profound challenges and making excuses for schools’ poor performance.

“You have to have a way to distinguish between schools that are doing a good job and turning kids’ lives around and those that are just collecting public monies,” said Nelson Smith, a charter expert who headed a national working group tasked with studying how alternative charter schools can and should be judged.

Many states haven’t come up with a way to define and fairly evaluate alternative charters, Smith said. He said that puts charter authorizers — entities such as the D.C. charter board that approve new charters and close under-performing ones — in a difficult position.

“They may know that an alternative school is actually doing a pretty good job, but they may lack the instruments to measure that with,” Smith said. “Or authorizers know that a particular school is not doing a good job but may not have the evidence collected in any meaningful way to close it down.”

In the District, the existing schools likely to be deemed alternative — Maya Angelou, Options and St. Coletta — have been exempt from the rating system applied to other schools.

The D.C. charter board evaluates schools annually, assigning each a rating meant to help parents and policymakers understand how they are performing. Schools rated poorly year after year become candidates for closure. But Options and Maya Angelou — though required to live up to the goals in their charter agreements — have not been subject to those ratings, leaving them in a partial accountability limbo.

Options faces closure for fiscal mismanagement after a lawsuit alleging that three of the school’s former managers funneled millions of taxpayer dollars to two companies they owned. But there also have been questions about how well the school served its students, highlighting the need for a fair performance accountability system for alternative schools.

Charter board officials said the decision to pass an alternative-school accountability policy this month was unrelated to the Options allegations. They began working more than a year ago to develop an alternative-school evaluation system, but they delayed a final decision as they participated in Smith’s national working group on the issue.

“I think we were overly aggressive in thinking we could just knock this out,” Naomi DeVeaux, deputy director for the charter board, said in May, emphasizing the complexity of defining “alternative” fairly.

Under the D.C. charter board’s new policies, each alternative school will work with the board to come up with a way to measure students’ progress and achievement fairly, and those measures will be made public each year.

Those measures likely would include improvement over time on citywide tests, but they might also include achievement on other tests, such as the Scantron Performance Series or the SAT or ACT college entrance exams. They also could include metrics that gauge students’ engagement in school, such as suspension and truancy rates.

The framework is broad enough that it could apply not only to high schools, but to schools serving younger students, DeVeaux said in an interview Friday.

“We think there will be middle schools and there might even be an elementary school, and we do not want to change our policy in two years,” she said.

Heather Wathington, the chief executive of the Maya Angelou network of schools, said she welcomes the flexibility of the new system and the opportunity to be fairly judged.

“We’re delighted that we actually get a chance to show what we do,” she said, adding that traditional measures of evaluating schools, such as proficiency rates and four-year graduation rates, can be misleading when students arrive years behind.

Members of the charter board said they hope the new policy will encourage others to consider opening alternative schools now that they are assured that they will not be judged by the same measures as other schools with less-challenging populations.

“We recognize that we have children with these challenges and characteristics in D.C.,” said Woodruff, the charter board’s vice president. “So we need more, not less, schools that can meet their needs and do a good job.”