Assessment

Charter Studies Offer Caution on Achievement

By Caroline Hendrie — February 08, 2005 4 min read
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If the nation’s diverse collection of charter schools were to be given a group report card, at this point they’d have a hard time making it onto the honor roll. That’s the lowdown from two reports released last week by groups that are firmly in the procharter camp.

The first, commissioned by the Washington-based Charter School Leadership Council, finds a decidedly mixed picture after analyzing 38 studies that have compared standardized-test scores of students in charter schools in various states with those in district-run schools. Although it cites evidence of progress, the analysis suggests that in many places, charter school performance is giving supporters too little to crow about.

“Studying Achievement in Charter Schools: What Do We Know?” and “A Tough Nut to Crack in Ohio: Charter Schooling in the Buckeye State” are available online from the Charter School Leadership Council and the Progressive Policy Institute, respectively. ()

“What we have is an experiment worth continuing—and refining,” says the report, which was written by Bryan C. Hassel, a policy consultant and charter expert based in Chapel Hill, N.C. “The existence of poor-quality charter schools makes clear that we have more to learn about how to generate success with this policy.”

The second report, released by the Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank here affiliated with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, focuses exclusively on Ohio. While highlighting some bright spots, the report suggests that the state’s charter sector is burdened by an array of problems that have hurt student performance.

“Available academic-achievement information on charter schools in Ohio presents a mixed and incomplete picture, but one that should worry charter school supporters,” the PPI report says. Still, it says that the Ohio charter sector is in transition, partly because of revisions to the law there two years ago, and that grounds for optimism exist as long as policymakers “actively work to ensure that these schools are as much about quality as they are about choice for parents.”

The reports come as leading proponents of charter schools are stressing the need to address the uneven quality of the more than 3,200 such schools around the country. Critics of the independently run but publicly financed schools, meanwhile, are pointing to research results as a reason to wind down the nation’s 12-year-old experiment with charter schooling.

Greater Scrutiny Urged

Instead of slamming the brakes on chartering, Mr. Hassel argues in his report for more research into why some charter schools are runaway successes and others are the opposite.

His analysis found that studies tracking scores over time—either of individual students or of entire schools or grades—yielded a more encouraging picture of charter schools’ performance than research that relied on snapshot comparisons.

Bryan Hassel

Among the 21 studies he examined that measured changes in test scores, nine found gains in charters that outstripped those in district schools. Five found comparable gains in both types of schools, and three found charters lagging, Mr. Hassel reports. Three more studies found that charter schools were posting greater gains in certain categories, such as elementary or high schools, or those serving students deemed at high risk of school failure.

Of the 17 so-called snapshot studies, nine found that district schools were outperforming charters, while the rest showed “comparable, mixed, or generally positive results for charter schools.”

The report calls for more studies that track individual students over time, and that look at factors other than test scores, such as dropout rates, attendance, satisfaction levels, performance in subjects other than reading and mathematics, and success in college.

Further, Mr. Hassel urges more evaluations of the policy of chartering itself, rather than of how students on average are doing in charter schools as a whole.

“Asking about the quality of ‘charter schools’ as a group is a bit like asking the quality of ‘new restaurants’ or ‘American cars,’ ” the report says. “[A]ny overall generalization will mask great diversity within.”

One researcher whose studies were included in Mr. Hassel’s analysis said last week that his review of the research so far yields a view of charter performance that is slightly more negative than Mr. Hassel’s.

Gary J. Miron, the chief of staff at the evaluation center at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, said charter schools in some states, including Michigan, North Carolina, and Ohio, seem to be having particular problems with achievement. But he said that research in the field is strikingly incomplete.

“There’s a lot of bad research out there, and there are a lot of people struggling with bad data,” Mr. Miron said.

In Ohio, a lack of solid data on performance is just one of a series of serious challenges facing the charter sector, according to the Progressive Policy Institute report by Chicago education writer Alexander Russo.

The state has more than 240 charter schools serving an estimated 60,000 students. But last school year, only 112 received ratings under the state’s school accountability system, in part because the state lacks usable testing data for many of them, the report says.

What’s more, the report says, 58 percent of the charter schools that were rated ended up in the two lowest categories. To improve quality, the report recommends closing the funding gap between charter and district schools; doing more to help “mom and pop” charter schools that are run independently of education management organizations; allowing charter schools to spread statewide; and encouraging proven charter models to enter the state, among other steps.

Oversight by charter school authorizers also needs to improve, the PPI report says. But the jury is out, it says, on how successfully the state will carry out a 2003 law that required schools that were granted their charters by the state to find new authorizers by this coming July.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 09, 2005 edition of Education Week as Charter Studies Offer Caution on Achievement

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