Multiple Choice: Charter School Performance in 16 States (page 2)
As charter schools play an increasingly central role in education reform agendas across the United States, it becomes more important to have current and comprehensible analysis about how well they do educating their students. Thanks to progress in student data systems and regular student achievement testing, it is possible to examine student learning in charter schools and compare it to the experience the students would have had in the traditional public schools (TPS) they would otherwise have attended. This report presents a longitudinal student‐level analysis of charter school impacts on more than 70 percent of the students in charter schools in the United States. The scope of the study makes it the first national assessment of charter school impacts.
Charter schools are permitted to select their focus, environment and operations and wide diversity exists across the sector. This study provides an overview that aggregates charter schools in different ways to examine different facets of their impact on student academic growth.
The group portrait shows wide variation in performance. The study reveals that a decent fraction of charter schools, 17 percent, provide superior education opportunities for their students. Nearly half of the charter schools nationwide have results that are no different from the local public school options and over a third, 37 percent, deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their student would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools. These findings underlie the parallel findings of significant state‐by‐state differences in charter school performance and in the national aggregate performance of charter schools. The policy challenge is how to deal constructively with varying levels of performance today and into the future.
CREDO has partnered with 15 states and the District of Columbia to consolidate longitudinal student‐level achievement data for the purposes of creating a national pooled analysis of the impact of charter schooling on student learning gains. For each charter school student, a virtual twin is created based on students who match the charter student’s demographics, English language proficiency and participation in special education or subsidized lunch programs. Virtual twins were developed for 84 percent of all the students in charter schools. The resulting matched longitudinal comparison is used to test whether students who attend charter schools fare better than if they had instead attended traditional public schools in their community. The outcome of interest is academic learning gains in reading and math, measured in standard deviation units.
Student academic learning gains on reading and math state achievement tests were examined in three ways: a pooled nationwide analysis of charter school impacts, a state‐by‐state analysis of charter school results, and an examination of the performance of charter schools against their local alternatives. In all cases, the outcome of interest is the magnitude of student learning that occurs in charter school students compared to their traditional public school virtual twins. Each analysis looks at the impact of a variety of factors on charter school student learning: the state where the student resides, the school’s grade‐span, the student’s background, time in charter schools, and a number of policy characteristics of the charter school environment.
Summary of Findings
Charter school performance is a complex and difficult matter to assess. Each of the three analyses revealed distinct facets of charter school performance. In increasing levels of aggregation, from the head‐to‐head comparisons within communities to the pooled national analysis, the results are presented below.
When the effect of charter schools on student learning is compared to the experience the students would have realized in their local traditional public schools, the result can be graphed in a point‐in‐time Quality Curve that relates the average math growth in each charter school to the performance their students would have realized in traditional public schools in their immediate community, as measured by the experience of their virtual twins. The Quality Curve displays the distribution of individual charter school performance relative to their TPS counterparts. A score of “0” means there is no difference between the charter school performance and that of their TPS comparison group. More positive values indicate increasingly better performance of charters relative to traditional public school effects and negative values indicate that charter school effects are worse than what was observed for the traditional public school effects.
The Quality Curve results are sobering:
- Of the 2403 charter schools reflected on the curve, 46 percent of charter schools have math gains that are statistically indistinguishable from the average growth among their TPS comparisons.
- Charters whose math growth exceeded their TPS equivalent growth by a significant amount account for 17 percent of the total.
- The remaining group, 37 percent of charter schools, posted math gains that were significantly below what their students would have seen if they enrolled in local traditional public schools instead.
The state‐by‐state analysis showed the following:
- The effectiveness of charter schools was found to vary widely by state. The variation was over and above existing differences among states in their academic results.
States with significantly higher learning gains for charter school students than would have occurred in traditional schools include:
- Colorado (Denver)
- Illinois (Chicago)
The gains in growth ranged from .02 Standard deviations in Illinois (Chicago) to .07 standard deviations in Colorado (Denver).
States that demonstrated lower average charter school student growth than their peers in traditional schools included:
- New Mexico
In this group, the marginal shift ranged from ‐.01 in Arizona to ‐.06 standard deviations in Ohio.
Four states had mixed results or were no different than the gains for traditional school peers:
- District of Columbia
- North Carolina
- The academic success of charter school students was found to be affected by the contours of the charter policies under which their schools operate.
- States that have limits on the number of charter schools permitted to operate, known as caps, realize significantly lower academic growth than states without caps, around .03 standard deviations.
- States that empower multiple entities to act as charter school authorizers realize significantly lower growth in academic learning in their students, on the order of ‐.08 standard deviations. While more research is needed into the causal mechanism, it appears that charter school operators are able to identify and choose the more permissive entity to provide them oversight.
- Where state charter legislation provides an avenue for appeals of adverse decisions on applications or renewals, students realize a small but significant gain in learning, about .02 standard deviations.
To put variation in state results in context, the average charter school gains in reading and math were plotted against the 2007 4th Grade NAEP state averages. The position of the states relative to the national NAEP average and relative to average learning gains tees up important questions about school quality in general and charter school quality specifically.
The analysis of total charter school effects, pooled student‐level data from all of the participating states and examined the aggregate effect of charter schools on student learning. The national pooled analysis of charter school impacts showed the following results:
- Charter school students on average see a decrease in their academic growth in reading of .01 standard deviations compared to their traditional school peers. In math, their learning lags by .03 standard deviations on average. While the magnitude of these effects is small, they are both statistically significant.
- The effects for charter school students are consistent across the spectrum of starting positions. In reading, charter school learning gains are smaller for all students but those whose starting scores are in the lowest or highest deciles. For math, the effect is consistent across the entire range.
- Charter students in elementary and middle school grades have significantly higher rates of learning than their peers in traditional public schools, but students in charter high schools and charter multi‐level schools have significantly worse results.
- Charter schools have different impacts on students based on their family backgrounds. For Blacks and Hispanics, their learning gains are significantly worse than that of their traditional school twins. However, charter schools are found to have better academic growth results for students in poverty.
English Language Learners realize significantly better learning gains in charter schools. Students in Special Education programs have about the same outcomes.
- Students do better in charter schools over time. First year charter students on average experience a decline in learning, which may reflect a combination of mobility effects and the experience of a charter school in its early years. Second and third years in charter schools see a significant reversal to positive gains.
Reprinted with permission from Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). © 2009 CREDO
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