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NAEP Study Fuels Debate Over Charter Schools

By Caroline Hendrie — January 04, 2005 4 min read
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Stoking a debate that had been heating up all fall, federal officials recently released a long-awaited study showing that 4th graders in charter schools posted lower math scores on the tests commonly known as “the nation’s report card” than their counterparts in regular public schools.

“America’s Charter Schools: Results From the NAEP 2003 Pilot Study,” is available online from the National Center for Education Statistics.

The report “Achievement in Charter Schools and Regular Public Schools in the United States: Understanding the Differences” is available from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. ().

The official analysis of scores from the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress found 4th graders in charter schools generally lagging behind their counterparts in regular public schools. But the gaps were statistically meaningful only for mathematics, not for reading, officials said. And the differences in both subjects shrank to insignificance once the race and ethnicity of the students were taken into account, the study found.

Release of the study in the nation’s capital on Dec. 15 revived a controversy that flared in August, when the American Federation of Teachers released an unofficial version of the results from data available on the Internet. (“AFT Charter School Study Sparks Heated National Debate,” Sept. 1, 2004.)

“This study cannot and should not be used as a red flag by those with an agenda of trying to stop the charter schools movement in its tracks,” said outgoing Secretary of Education Rod Paige, a strong supporter of charter schools. Bush administration officials also stressed that the NAEP figures gave only a “snapshot” of performance, did not measure student progress over time, and could not be construed as a judgment on the effectiveness of charter schools.

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Critics of charter schools, by contrast, said the study showed that the charter sector is not delivering on its promise of higher achievement in exchange for freedom from many regulations affecting other public schools.

Looking forward, the AFT said the study should make policymakers reconsider a provision of the federal No Child Left Behind Act that specifies conversion to charter status as one option for public schools that chronically fail to meet state accountability standards.

Bella Rosenberg, an assistant to the president of the AFT and a co-author of the union’s August report, said the results showed that “most charter schools are doing worse than our much-maligned regular public schools.”

“If charter schools are supposed to rescue children trapped in regular public schools,” she said, “who will rescue children attending demonstrably worse charter schools?”

Subsidized-Lunch Data

Authorized by the National Assessment Governing Board, the NAEP pilot study relied on testing data for a total of 6,500 students in 150 charter schools, as well as some 376,000 pupils in regular public schools.

Overall, the study found that in math, 69 percent of 4th graders in charter schools attained at least a basic level of proficiency, compared with 76 percent of students at regular public schools. NAGB determined that the gap between those percentages met its standard for a statistically reliable difference.

In reading, on the other hand, the governing board determined that the lower scores posted by charter school 4th graders did not denote a measurable difference. The study found that in reading, 58 percent of students in charter schools scored at least at the basic level, while 62 percent of students in regular public schools did.

A higher proportion of students in charter schools were African-American and a higher percentage of the charter schools were in central cities, the report emphasizes. On the whole, such students and schools tend to post lower scores on standardized tests.

But the teachers’ union stressed that charter schools reported serving proportionately fewer students receiving federally subsidized lunches—a standard measure of poverty—and that such pupils in charter schools scored lower than those in regular public schools.

Administration officials cautioned that 10 percent of charter schools did not provide data on the subsidized-lunch program, and that many charter schools do not participate in it.

Still, the AFT said the data undercut arguments that charter schools are educating an exceptionally disadvantaged population.

The report, which was prepared by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics and released by NAGB, found that students in charter schools that were part of their local school districts fared better on the tests than those in schools that reported being independent.

But Jeanne Allen, the president of the pro-charter Center for Education Reform, based in Washington, said the way that NAEP asked the question about school and district affiliation was confusing. The center has long argued that charter schools that are highly autonomous produce better results.

On the contentious issue of teacher qualifications, the study found a negligible difference in performance between students whose teachers did and did not have standard teaching licenses

The report was released just a day after a study by Harvard University economics professor Caroline M. Hoxby, who examined charter school achievement as measured by state tests, and not by the federal NAEP data.

Comparing charter schools with nearby “matched” schools, Ms. Hoxby found that students in charter schools nationwide were 5.2 percent more likely to be proficient on their state exams in reading and 3.2 percent more likely in math.

She also found that charter students did better the longer their schools had been up and running. Charter critics sought to poke holes in the study, even as charter supporters seized on it as positive news.

A version of this article appeared in the January 05, 2005 edition of Education Week as NAEP Study Fuels Debate Over Charter Schools

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