"A Closer Look At Charter School Academic Performance" by Jed Wallace

February 24, 2011

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Education reform has taken center stage in many debates around the state and the nation over the past couple of years, as parents, students, and communities demand better educational outcomes for all students from public schools.

Generating those better outcomes while closing the achievement gap between low-income and affluent students is a daunting challenge, but not an impossible one. Members of the California Charter Schools Association believe like I do that we must be relentless in our pursuit of ever-higher academic performance if charter schools are to contribute even more significantly to making high-performing schools a reality for every student in California.

For almost two decades, charter schools in California have offered parents, students and communities options for a better education. Our state now has the largest concentration of charters in the country. At 912 schools, we saw our most significant growth ever this school year, with 115 charters opening across the state. But growth alone isn't enough.

While we know the state has some of the best charter schools in the country, we are also aware that there are weaknesses within the movement. That is why the California Charter Schools Association is taking unprecedented and proactive steps to ensure that all students attending charter schools are getting an education that will help them succeed as adults.

This week our first annual Portrait of the Movement report, which details the academic performance of charter schools and provides a framework to press for higher accountability for low-performing charters. The report reveals reasons for great optimism in the areas where charter schools are excelling and for greater resolve in the areas where charter schools need to improve.

The most significant finding in Portrait of the Movement is that California charter schools are accelerating the closure of the achievement gap between low-income and affluent students. This finding is supported with ample evidence that charter schools serving low-income populations are generating better academic results than traditional public schools serving students with similar demographics.

These results are cause for celebration, proving that charters are breaking the link between poverty and under-performance. For far too long, too many within our traditional public school system have surrendered to the belief that poverty and underperformance are inexorably linked and that there is little that schools alone can do to help students overcome the various social barriers that they face. This paralyzing belief - undergirded by a self-perpetuating view that only some students, and not all students, are actually able to learn at high levels - has been used by many as justification for the various objections they raise to proposed reforms of our public education system. The performance of California's charter schools - from classrooms in South Los Angeles to Oakland and San Diego to Sacramento - demonstrates that the possibility of transformational change is within our grasp if we have the courage to embrace reforms which serve the interests of students.

Another important finding with Portrait of the Movement is that charters are more concentrated than non-charters among both over-performing and under-performing schools, thus forming a "U" shaped distribution of performance. Our goal is to harness the power of the movement to shift that shape into a "J," by ensuring that charter schools become even more over-represented in the over-performing category while significantly decreasing the number of underperforming charter schools.

Fortunately, the report demonstrates that we are already on the right track. We see for example, that more charter schools are over-performing than under-performing, and that, in terms of numbers of students served, more than two times as many students attend over-performing than under-performing schools. We are also encouraged to see that the number and proportion of under-performing charters appears to be decreasing over time.

With that said, the Portrait of the Movement also clearly reveals that there are simply too many underperforming charter schools and we must as a movement act with commensurate courage to improve academic accountability systems. The fact that the measures and policy recommendations contained within the Portrait of the Movement were developed in close collaboration with the Association's Member Council, and the fact that the overall membership of the Association remains strong in its support for increased academic accountability, speaks to the level of commitment California's charter schools have supporting quality within the movement.

Powering the groundbreaking findings in Portrait of the Movement is the Similar Students Measure (SSM), a metric the Association developed to more accurately gauge comparative school performance. The SSM assesses school performance while filtering out many of the non-school effects on student achievement through the use of regression-based predictive modeling. The measure compares a school's Academic Performance Index (or "API," a numeric score used for school accountability purposes ranging from 200 to 1,000 that summarizes a school's performance on California's standardized tests) to a predicted API that controls for the effects of student background on performance. This approach gives us an approximation of a school's added value, using publicly available data, in spite of the limitations of CA's data and assessment system, which does not allow for the use of individual student level data. In addition to advancing the SSM, CCSA has created a broader framework that includes measures of absolute rigor (in the form of a school's status as measured by its API score) and momentum (in the form of growth in API over a three-year period) to assess school progress more accurately than any one metric alone. Through this candid snapshot of performance, CCSA and its membership will continue to advance concrete policy initiatives designed raise the performance bar and to support the expansion of those charter schools that are having a high impact on their students' futures.

While current state law calls on charter authorizers--school districts, county offices of education, and the State Board of Education--to close schools that have not met minimum academic requirements, the process has not been a consistent one, and under-performing charters have slipped through the cracks. CCSA is proactively working to close these loopholes and has established minimum performance criteria for charter renewal to ensure that charters are delivering on the promise of a high-quality education for all students in California.

In tandem with the release of Portrait of the Movement, we are activating a series of Web-enabled tools to help families and the public understand the picture of performance for every single charter in California that opened before fall of 2010. Indeed, our interactive map provides the public access to the performance record of all charter schools as well as all traditional public schools in their surrounding areas, giving families for the first time a highly detailed look of the options available to them based on a measure that renders a picture of added value. In this way, the California charter school movement is demonstrating a level of transparency and clarity about academic achievement, and the collective will to improve that is so sorely lacking elsewhere in public education. Our hope is that our example will initiate a broader dialogue about how all public schools can embrace accountability like charter schools are demonstrating today.

For more information, visit the Portrait of the Movement section of the CCSA website.

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