Nearly 1,700 charter schools are now operating in the United States, and the movement to create more of them enjoys widespread support. But so far, policymakers looking for proof that such schools can best the traditional public school system at improving student academic performance would find a patchwork quilt of conflicting evidence.
The following are highlights from the results of seven recent studies:
Arizona | Michigan | Minnesota | Mulitple States
Study sample: 51 Michigan charter schools from October 1997 to December 1998
Evaluator: The Evaluation Center of Western Michigan University
Date published: January 1999
Findings: The charter schools as a group had significantly lower scores on state standardized tests than their host districts. The schools also had lower gains in test scores than traditional public schools in their districts.
Study sample: 51 Colorado charter schools that had been open for at least two years by the start of the 1998-99 school year
Evaluator: Colorado Department of Education
Date published: January 2000
Findings: The performance of charter schools as a whole on state standardized tests was stronger than state averages. The charter schools also outperformed sponsoring school districts and other public schools when comparing students of the same socioeconomic backgrounds.
Study sample:Five charter schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, close to their charter- renewal dates.
Evaluator: WestEd and the University of Southern California
Date published: June 1998
Findings: Overall, students in the five schools maintained or slightly improved their performance on standardized tests over time in comparison with a group of noncharter schools in the district.
Study sample: 82 Arizona Charter Schools in 1997 and 1998.
Evaluator: Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University
Date published: March 1999
Findings: The standardized-test scores of students who attended charter schools for two years increased about the same amount as the scores of students in regular public schools. By middle school, however, the students who had attended charter schools for a year or more began to lag behind their counterparts in regular schools. In high school, the gap was even more dramatic.
Study sample: 55 charter schools in nine Michigan counties over the 1997-98 school year
Evaluator: Public Sector Consultants Inc. and Maximus Inc.
Date published: February 1999
Findings: The percentage of charter school students scoring “satisfactory” on standardized tests was lower than at a majority of local traditional public schools. But the rate of improvement in test scores was greater for charter school students than for students at comparable public schools.
Study Sample: 16 Minnesota charter schools
Evaluator: The College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota
Date published: May 1998
Findings: Results were mixed. In six of eight charter schools reporting reading and math test scores in 1997, more than half of the students scored below the national average. When 1997 results of state tests from seven charter schools were compared with the results of the surrounding districts, five of the seven reported higher percentages of students passing the reading test, and three reported higher passing rates in math.
Study sample: 31 charter schools in eight states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, and Texas.
Evaluator: Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota
Date published: March 1998
Findings: Twenty-one charter schools, or 68 percent of the study’s sample, had administered at least two rounds of the same standardized test and “appeared to be making academic gains.” The study drew no general conclusions about how those gains compared with those of regular public schools.
A version of this article appeared in the May 03, 2000 edition of Education Week as Conflicting Studies