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National study: Charter schools getting better, cybers drag down Pa. results

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A new comprehensive national study has found that, overall, charter school performance has improved nationwide, but results vary widely by state. In Pennsylvania, students who attend charters performed worse, on the whole, than their peers in both reading and math, according to the research.

Pennsylvania charters' performance, said the study's co-author, was dragged down by the state's cyber schools. Though there were only eight cyber charters in among the nearly 100 schools studied, they enrolled 30 percent of the students, said Devora Davis, one of the study's authors.

The study was performed by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University. It was a follow-up to an oft-quoted report from 2009, which found that students in only 17 percent of charters did better than similar students in traditional schools.

With 84 charter schools, Philadelphia has more than half the total number of charters in Pennsylvania. But the report did not specify where the charters looked at in the study are located, or break out results for Philadelphia-based schools.

"In terms of Pennsylvania overall, charter school students lag behind traditional public school peers by 29 days [of learning] in reading and 50 days in math," said Davis, CREDO's research manager.

That compares to a national picture in which charter students slightly outperformed in reading and drew even in math with their counterparts in traditional schools.

In Pennsylvania, the study found that students in all eight cyber charters that were studied did worse than similar students who attended traditional public schools. Among the 91 brick-and-mortar charters studied, students in 38 schools performed significantly worse than their counterparts in reading, 28 performed about the same, and 32 did significantly better.

In math, students in 38 charters performed significantly worse, 28 about the same, and 25 significantly better.

The period studied was between 2009 and 2011, using 2008 as a baseline for comparison.

Based on the results, "I don’t think there’s anything we can say specifically about Philadelphia charters," Davis said. "What is important to note, when looking at the overall results for Pennsylvania, is it is just an average. Some charters are at the average, some are better, some are performing worse. There is always a distribution around an average."

Davis said that CREDO plans to release a study focusing on urban charters around the end of this year that may have more specific results for Philadelphia.

Overall, the new study, which examined charters in 25 states, plus Washington, D.C. and New York City, found that low-income African American and Latino students, especially English language learners, do better in charters than peers in traditional schools, while white students do worse. The comparison was made by matching students according to criteria including prior skill level, ethnicity, and income. The control group is called the "virtual twins."

While using test scores to measure student progress, CREDO translated the findings in terms of how many more "days of learning" charter students accumulated compared to their "virtual twins."

Since 2009, charters have "made slow and steady progress," said CREDO director Margaret Raymond.  She said the gains were partly driven by the closure of more low-performing charters.

The 2009 report covered 16 states, which did not include Pennsylvania.

According to the new study, 25 percent of charters have significantly stronger learning gains in reading than their traditional school counterparts, while 56 percent showed no significant difference, and 19 percent showed weaker learning gains. In math, 29 percent of charter schools showed student learning gains that were significantly stronger than their traditional public school peers, while 40 percent were not significantly different and 31 percent were weaker

The study also showed that white and Asian students are not benefiting from attendance in charters, Raymond said. Nor do African American students who are not in poverty get any particular advantage.

But African American students in poverty and ELL students gained significantly in charter schools, the report found.

 

 

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Dale Mezzacappa

@dalemezz
Dale is a contributing editor at the Notebook. She has reported on education since 1986, most of that time with The Philadelphia Inquirer.