School & District Management

Study Finds Charter School Achievement Near That Of Regular Schools

By Caroline Hendrie — July 09, 2003 4 min read
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Charter schools in California generally are keeping pace with other public schools in improving student test scores, despite receiving less public funding per pupil and struggling with other challenges, according to a major, state- commissioned study released last week.

“Charter School Operations and Performance: Evidence From California” is available from RAND. (Report chapters require Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

“The Performance of California Charter Schools” is available from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

“Student Progress in California Charter Schools, 1999-2002,” is available from the Stanford University Department of Statistics. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

Researchers from the RAND Corp. concluded that while test scores in the charter sector as a whole lag behind those in conventional public schools, the gap narrows considerably when scores are adjusted to reflect students’ demographic backgrounds.

They also found that some types of charter schools in California are chalking up markedly better achievement records than others.

At the top of the list were classroom-based, start-up charter schools, which posted slightly better scores on average than conventional public schools. On the other hand, schools where students received a significant amount of instruction at home or in other nonclassroom-based settings fared worse. District-run public schools that had converted to charter status performed about as well as regular public schools.

The researchers strongly cautioned against generalizing about the impact that charter schools alone have on student performance, or a “charter effect,” because of the wide diversity among California’s 400-plus charter schools.

Still, they said, the study should offer insights to policymakers and educators beyond the Golden State, which boasts the largest number of charter school students in the country at roughly 160,000.

“Given that there are so many charter schools [in California], and so many students in those charter schools, the study has important implications for other states,” said Ron Zimmer, a RAND economist who was the lead investigator on the 11-member team that produced the 18-month study by the Santa Monica, Calif.-based research organization.

No ‘Cream Skimming’

Required as part of a 1998 revision to the state’s 1992 charter school law, the study examined not only achievement, but also financing, oversight, access, student characteristics, academic environments, staffing, and special education.

The study found no evidence that charter schools were “skimming the cream” academically, but cautioned that a lack of statewide achievement data for individual students over time hampered analysis of that question.

Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, said he felt that the study had not settled that question. He also said the RAND study faced a “nagging problem” stemming from incomplete test-score data from the charter sector.

But Mr. Fuller said the study offered “some promising news": Charter students have made comparable gains even though their schools face what he portrayed in a recent report as worrisome shortfalls in such resources as licensed teachers and federal Title I funding for poor children. (“Charter Schools Found Lacking Resources,” April 16, 2003.)

“If kids in resource-poor charter schools are learning at the same rate as public school counterparts, then we need to know what the magic is and bottle that magic,” Mr. Fuller said.

On the list of RAND’s policy recommendations is a call to close the funding gap between charter and regular public schools, in part by helping charters to get more “categorical” funding from programs such as Title I. California’s charter school association praised the study and welcomed that message.

The RAND evaluation follows another study released last month by a researcher at Stanford University who analyzed schools’ state accountability ratings and concluded that students in California’s charter high schools were gaining ground faster than those in conventional public high schools.

After adjusting for demographic and other differences among schools, that study also found that charter elementary and middle schools performed about the same as their district-run counterparts, said Margaret E. Raymond, the study’s author and the director of CREDO, a research center based at the Hoover Institution.

David R. Rogosa, a statistician who is an associate professor at Stanford’s school of education, attacked Ms. Raymond’s study as misleading last week. Mr. Rogosa released his own analysis that showed charter schools improving at rates comparable to those of noncharter public schools.

Ms. Raymond said the two researchers fundamentally disagree over research methodology, and stood by her study, which was released on June 18.

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