Report: Charter progress outpaces public high schools

Improvement rates used to evaluate schools

Results from Michigan Educational Assessment Program standardized tests in 2004 show that charter high schools are progressing at a faster rate than public high schools, according to an October analysis of test scores by The Detroit News.

Though charters are still behind conventional high schools in aggregate average scores statewide, The News found that scores on the reading, writing, math and science sections of the MEAP test at charter schools increased at a greater rate than at public schools.

Proponents of charters say these results are an indication of the ability of charter schools to help students that have problems in public schools. Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, the organization that represents charter schools around the state, calls these results a success. "Charters are taking the students that drop out of public schools during high school, which is where they mostly do so," he said.

The News’ analysis of results on the MEAP tests found that on the math section, charter students improved 2.7 percent over the previous year, compared to a 1.1 percent decline in conventional schools. In reading, charters saw an increase of 11.2 percent, compared to a 9.4 percent increase statewide, and in science, seniors at charters improved scores by 8 percent, while seniors at conventional schools improved by 2.3 percent.

Quisenberry noted that the faster pace of the charter schools’ improvement over conventional public schools reflects the important role played by charters. The data, he said, "add to the body of evidence that establishes the need for charter schools in the education system as a whole."

His comments echoed those of other proponents, who say that charter schools add an element of competition to public education that promotes higher standards of learning in all schools, whether conventional public, public charter or private schools. Charter schools are publicly funded, but locally controlled by various independent organizations, including parent groups, nonprofit organizations and even corporations.

Critics point out that charter schools still lag behind state averages in all portions of the MEAP test, a fact that charter administrators acknowledge and say they are working to improve. "You can’t do everything in one year, but we’re making a lot of progress," Weston Technical Academy Principal Jim Baston told The Detroit News. The percentage of students at Weston meeting reading standards doubled this past year to 61 percent, but scores at the school remain low in writing and math.

One reason students at charters may have increased at faster rates than traditional schools this past year is their lower starting point, noted Western Michigan University researcher Gary Miron. "It’s easier to show growth when kids aren’t performing that well to begin with," Miron told The News.

Proponents counter that the lower initial results disprove the charge that charters would "skim" the best students from the conventional public schools. The evidence suggests that charters, on average, take in more students that were struggling in their former schools. This results in a lower baseline from which charter schools start their assessment testing, compared to conventional public schools. Researchers have begun to acknowledge this fact, shifting their assessments of charter schools toward "value-added" improvement, or the rate at which students improve within charters and conventional public schools, rather than just a snapshot of MEAP scores at a particular time. This methodology avoids making static comparisons between dissimilar groups of students.

Martin Ackley, spokesman for the state superintendent of public instruction, praised charters for their improvement. "We are pleased when any high school can increase achievement," he said. However, Ackley stated he doesn’t think charters necessarily provide competition among schools "as much as it is an option for some parents to take." In any case, he said, "We want all students, whether at public school academies or traditional neighborhood schools, to achieve at the highest possible levels."