January 14, 2005

Success of charter schools debated

By Rebecca Trela
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire

WASHINGTON – Students in charter schools score about the same on reading and mathematics tests as their traditional public school peers, the National Assessment of Educational Progress reported recently.

The NAEP study, commonly known as “the nation’s report card,” was anticipated to definitively measure the merit of charter schools. Debate had escalated greatly after the American Federation of Teachers released a controversial report in August.

Charter schools have management and curriculum autonomy from public schools but are funded with public money. They are usually run by private groups.

It appears that the argument is far from over, however, as the NAEP report yielded almost the same numbers as the AFT assessment – but AFT’s conclusion was that charter school students perform a bit behind traditional school students. The difference lies in the details, apparently – the fight is about statistics.

“The numbers are very similar, obviously, because we were using the same data,” said Nancy Van Meter, a policy analyst at AFT. The teachers’ union used different methods to analyze the data, which was collected in 2003.

Van Meter noted several important differences, though: “If you look at the kids who are eligible for free/reduced lunch, charter school kids score lower.”

The number of children eligible for free or reduced-price lunches is a rough measure of poverty in the student body.

NAEP, which compared a sampling of fourth grade students in 150 of approximately 2,700 charter schools with “matched” school districts (where the charter students would have attended), found that the public students scored six points higher on mathematics tests. This, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, is a “statically significant” number – enough to say that charter schools underperform on math tests.

The reading assessment, however, showed that charter school students lagged behind by only five points – a statistically insignificant difference, as NAEP put it.

Van Meter pointed out a number of ways in which the numbers could be compared to give different results, although her organization’s official stance is that public school students performed better.

“The folks who attacked our analysis argued strongly that charter schools were educating the most disadvantaged kids,” said Van Meter. “What you see from this data is that kids in charter schools are not a whole lot more likely to be low income than regular school kids.”

In much of the debate about charter schools, proponents argued the nontraditional offerings would serve Hispanics, blacks, urban and poor children especially. Most studies now agree, though, that poor students are just as likely to attend one school as the other.

“I think that raises a concern,” said Van Meter. “What these scores reveal is that we’re actually not seeing better results among poorer kids, as promised.”

When stratified by race, the test differences were statistically much smaller or nonexistent. Hispanic students at a charter school are likely to score about the same on a reading test as Hispanic students at a traditional public school.

So which type of school is better for kids? “I think the answer is, it depends,” Van Meter said. “You’re getting a lot of good information … important issues that you would want to raise if you’re looking at either a regular school or a charter school.”

She said that because charter schools vary so much by state, a parent’s choice could vary as well.

The NAEP study also came under fire for other concerns, which commissioners hope to work out for the 2005 study.

“We weren’t able to take into account students’ performance before entering a charter school,” said Peggy Carr, associate NAEP commissioner. “We’re currently working on a follow-up study.”

Carr also said that the study doesn’t take into account parental satisfaction with the schools and their children’s performance.

“Most charter schools receive less, on average, per student than most regular schools,” said Deputy Secretary of Education Eugene Hickok. “Given that they’re spending less per student and performing just as well … we should be pleased by that.”

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