Charter School Operator Reports Gains on Tests

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Students in charter schools managed by Advantage Schools Inc. showed significant achievement gains on nationally normed tests last year, the Boston-based company reported last week.

The 5,874 students tested in 14 schools run by Advantage showed a combined average 9.1 point gain in national percentile rank from fall to spring on two tests, the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition and the Woodcock Reading Mastery Tests-Revised.

According to the company, the schools showed no statistically significant achievement declines in any grade or test subject, while their students made significant gains in 19 of 24 subjects across all grades.

"This is a very consistent record," said Steven F. Wilson, the chief executive officer of Advantage. "It's not that some schools declined but were pulled up by a few star schools."

For More Information

The "Advantage Schools Annual Report on School Performance for the 1999- 2000 School Year," from Advantage Schools, Inc. (Requires Adobe's Acrobat Reader.)

Advantage now manages 15 charter schools in eight states and the District of Columbia, serving some 9,000 students. Next to Edison Schools Inc., the New York City- based company that manages both charters and traditional public schools, Advantage is one of the largest and most prominent entrants in the arena of for- profit management of charter schools.

The company is noted for a design that embodies strict discipline and uniforms for students and use of Direct Instruction, in which teachers adhere to heavily scripted lesson plans.

The company's first "Annual Report on School Performance," patterned somewhat on Edison's achievement reports, discusses only its own administration of the Stanford and Woodcock tests, not any state-mandated ones.

Stephen F. Wilson

"Ideally, the progress of our students would be tracked against that of a properly formed control group that did not receive the Advantage education," the report acknowledges. But no such control groups were formed, and Advantage students were compared against students nationwide on the Stanford and Woodcock tests.

The report argues that achievement gains in Advantage schools were significant because most of them serve low-income, urban students. Seventy-one percent of students in Advantage schools qualify for federal free or reduced- price lunches, compared with 33 percent of public school students nationally, according to the report.

Advantage students in grades K-2 showed an 18.8 percent increase in national percentile rank in reading on both tests, while students in grades 3-7 showed only a 5.4 percent increase. Students across all grades tested, kindergarten through 7th grade, showed a 4.4 percent gain in math and an 8.9 percent gain in language.

Still, average scores were below the national norm of 50 in most categories, with a 38.9 national percentile rank for Advantage students across all grades and subjects.

Mr. Wilson argued that Advantage's gains were the result of the freedom provided by the schools' charter status, the company's research-based school design, and the business- oriented attitude that permeates its schools.

Results Questioned

But independent researchers who have studied achievement in privately managed charter schools were not impressed by Advantage's results.

"The entire report should be dismissed out of hand simply because it relies on fall-to-spring testing," said F. Howard Nelson, the senior associate director of research for the American Federation of Teachers. The union has been skeptical of private management of public schools and has issued reports critical of Edison's reported achievement gains.

Mr. Nelson said student performance gains are inflated when comparing fall-to-spring test administrations because of familiarity with the test and student mobility. Researchers don't take such comparisons seriously, he argued, and Congress cut them from evaluations of Title I programs.

Gary Miron, a researcher who has studied charter school achievement for the Western Michigan University Evaluation Center in Kalamazoo, called on Advantage to include the results of state criterion-referenced tests in future reports. Such tests gauge how students perform against fixed benchmarks, while norm-referenced ones—such as the Stanford-9—compare students against other students.

Advantage officials say criterion-referenced tests cannot be easily compared across states.

But "comparisons can be made with state and district performance levels," Mr. Miron said. "Also, the administration of criterion-referenced tests is more carefully monitored than self-administered norm-referenced tests."

Both Mr. Miron and Mr. Nelson also cited examples where Advantage charter schools had performed poorly on state tests.

Vol. 20, Issue 29, Page 5

Published in Print: April 4, 2001, as Charter School Operator Reports Gains on Tests
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