More charters, including those in California, outperform district schools in reading, study says

The nation’s charter schools, including those in California, have made “slow and steady” progress over the past four years, with students in nearly a quarter of charters now outperforming their traditional school peers in reading and, on average, catching up to them in math, a group of Stanford researchers reported. The study also found that charter schools excel in teaching poor minority students and English language learners.
The study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, or CREDO, updates a 2009 report on charters in 15 states and the District of Columbia. That study’s major finding, which charter school critics have often cited to counter states’ and the Obama administration’s push for charter school expansion, was that 37 percent of charters produced academic results that were worse than traditional public schools in math, while only 17 percent performed significantly better, with no significant difference for the rest. There was little distinction in results between charters and traditional public schools in reading.
Charter schools now serve an estimated 2.3 million students in 6,000 schools – 4 percent of the nation’s school population. In California, nearly 8 percent of the state’s students – 471,000 – attend more than 1,000 charter schools.
Showing what the study called “steady” improvement from four years ago, students in 25 percent of charter schools did better than comparable traditional public schools in reading, while 19 percent did worse. In math, 29 percent of charter schools did better and 31 percent did worse. Four years ago, only 17 percent of charter schools did better in math, and 37 percent did worse, with 46 percent about the same. Source: CREDO National Charter School Study.The latest study analyzed state standardized tests results in math and reading in 25 states, Washington, D.C. and New York City. Among the major findings:
In reading, 25 percent of charters performed significantly better than district schools and 19 percent performed worse, with no significant difference for 56 percent of schools;
In math, 29 percent of charters performed significantly better and 31 percent performed worse, with no significant difference for 40 percent.
Students in charter schools states gained an average of eight days more per year in reading than their peers in other schools, the study said. That’s up from the 2009 study, which found that charter students in 16 states had seven fewer days of reading instruction each year, compared with students in other schools.  In math, where charter students’ scores equaled 22 fewer days of learning in 2009, the learning now is the same as with peers in traditional public schools, according to the study.
But there were great differences in results among states and among subgroups of students. Charter school students outperformed their traditional school peers in reading in 16 of the 27 states studied and underperformed students in traditional schools in eight states, with performance about even in three states. In math, charter schools in 12 states were stronger than traditional public schools and weaker in 13, with two having similar growth.
California was not among the 11 states where charter school students outperformed their peers in traditional public schools in both reading and math. In California, students in traditional public schools did better in math with seven extra learning days. But in reading, charter school students scored the equivalent of 22 extra learning days – nearly triple the national average of eight days’ improvement (page 61 of main report).
The CREDO analysis of the impact of charter schools found great differences among groups of students attending charter schools versus similar students in nearby traditional district schools, with scores on state standardized tests translated into gains or losses in learning days. White students in charter schools did significantly worse – the equivalent of 50 days lost in math and 14 in reading, while English language learners in charters gained 36 days in reading and math. Source: CREDO’s 2013 National Charter School Study. (Click for clear image)CREDO found that white students in traditional public schools substantially outperformed their peers in charter schools, as did Asian students in math; there was no difference for Hispanics overall. Poor students did better in charter schools (an extra 14 days in reading, 21 days in math) as did black students (14 extra days in math and reading) and English learners (36 extra days in both math and reading). Charter schools have been criticized for underenrolling special education students, especially students with moderate to severe handicaps. Special education students attending charter schools did better in math (14 extra learning days) than peers in district schools and about the same in reading, the study said.
A further breakdown of subgroups revealed that poor Hispanic students did better in charter schools while non-poor Hispanic students did better in district schools. Black students in poverty substantially outperformed their peers in district schools (36 extra days of learning in math, 39 in reading), while results were indistinguishable for non-poor black students.
CREDO found that black and Hispanic poor students and especially poor English learners made substantial gains compared with like students in traditional public schools. Test results were translated into learning days gained and lost. (Click for clear image)CREDO’s analysis of student subgroups in California and other states could show the impact of high-performing charter management organizations like Aspire Public Schools, Rocketship Education and Los Angeles-based Alliance for College Ready Schools, which target low-income, minority children. But it won’t be available until late summer or fall, according to CREDO.
In a statement Tuesday, Jed Wallace, president and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association, said, “To understand the story of charter performance, it is important to move beyond a discussion of averages and look at how charters are performing with key subgroups of students. … CCSA’s own research highlights that historically disadvantaged populations are achieving at high levels in California’s charter schools.” (See a previous article on the state Charter Schools Association’s 2012 detailed analysis of student performance.)
While the report concluded that “moving the needle for 2 million students (the number in charter schools) is no small feat,” it also stated: “The charter sector is getting better on average, but not because existing schools are getting dramatically better; it is mainly driven by opening higher-performing schools and by closing those that underperform.”
Between the first and latest reports, 8 percent of charter schools – assumed to be underperformers – were closed.
“The results reveal that the charter school sector is getting better on average and that charter schools are benefiting low-income, disadvantaged and special-education students,” said Margaret Raymond, director of CREDO. “As welcome as these changes are, more work needs to be done to ensure that all charter schools provide their students high-quality education.”

The report suggested that states do more to close down poorly performing charters and identify models that are likely to succeed before granting charters. It praised advocates, among them the California Charter Schools Association, that have taken the lead in encouraging regulators and lawmakers to revoke charters of non-performers. “We recently refined our accountability initiative, enhancing minimum performance expectations” for schools whose charters are up for renewal, Wallace said in his statement.
But other advocates, including Eric Premack, who directs the Sacramento-based Charter Schools Development Center, have warned that shutting down schools based on test scores would discourage some charters from targeting students at risk of dropping out and would be too narrow a measure.
CREDO’s methodology examined the records of 1.5 million charter school students, covering 95 percent of students in the states studied, and matched each with the results of a “virtual twin” – a student with similar demographics and test scores prior to enrollment in a nearby district school.
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