The news that Michigan students performed better on state standardized tests in 2006 than 2005 made headlines in many papers across the state in January — a bright spot in a month clouded with news of potential school budget cuts.
The reports followed a Michigan Department of Education announcement that math scores improved at every grade level on Michigan Educational Assessment Program tests, and reading scores improved or stayed the same. Mike Flanagan, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, attributed the higher scores to improved "content expectations" which give teachers a clearer picture of what is expected at each grade level.
But public school academy officials see a story within that story. MEAP results also show that public school academies, or charter schools, improved their overall performance on 19 of 27 tests given to kindergarten through eighth-graders statewide. While charter averages are still below statewide averages, the gap is narrower than a year ago. And in a direct comparison of charter schools to conventional public school districts where most charters are located, charter students in general outperformed their conventional public school counterparts.
"Michigan’s charter schools are continuing to narrow the gap," said Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies.
At the state level, charter schools and conventional public schools generally gained or lost ground in the same subject areas and at the same grade levels. But in many cases when charters improved, they improved more, according to analysis of the scores by MAPSA and other charter school officials. For instance, the number of eighth-graders who met or exceeded expectations in math went up by 5 percentage points among conventional public schools. Among charters, the increase was 6 percentage points. Fifth-grade reading proficiency went up by 4 percentage points among traditional schools, but by 7 percentage points among charter schools.
At the local level, comparing charter schools in specific communities like Grand Rapids, Lansing and Detroit to conventional public schools in those same communities showed that charter students generally did as well or better. In Detroit, for example, charter school scores exceeded local district scores on 24 of the 27 MEAP tests. The Michigan Department of Education uses those comparisons, as well as the statewide comparisons, to report to the Legislature on charter school progress.
Some of the most significant differences between charter school and conventional public school students were found at the middle-school level. Seventh- and eighth-grade charter students in the Lansing area, for example, performed better than Lansing-area conventional public schools on every MEAP test.
"It affirms what we’re doing," said Greg Dykhouse, director of academics for Black River Public School in Holland, of Black River’s test results. Black River scores were higher than the state average on all but one test, and higher than nearly every score reported by conventional public districts in the area, even though those districts reported gains as well. "We don’t put our sights on the MEAP, but we look at the results and try to reflect as a staff," he said.
Central Michigan University also uses more than the MEAP to assess the schools it authorizes, according to Jim Goenner, executive director of The Center for Charter Schools at CMU.
|"If the conventional schools say they’ve
improved, perhaps it’s because of the competition."
Greg Dykhouse, Black River Public School
"The MEAP is one tool and the scores are one set of indicators of the performance of schools and knowledge and skills of students. CMU pays attention to the MEAP results … but as one part of a more comprehensive Individualized School Performance Review process," Goenner told Michigan Education Report by e-mail. CMU requires on-line computer tests each fall and spring that "provide much more immediate evaluation of what students know and are able to do in the subjects of math and reading."
State officials attributed the overall increase in MEAP scores to improved "Grade Level Content Expectations," which explain what is expected at each grade level and what will be assessed on state tests.
"To the extent that schools have followed CMU’s requirements, and aligned their curriculum and instruction to the new expectations, scores have increased," said Mark Weinberg, director of academic accountability for CMU Charter Schools, also by e-mail. "If schools have not done the hard work of alignment, we find that their scores do not improve…. We support the idea of more clearly defining content expectations and more rigorous state standards in general."
Dykhouse suggested that the Holland area — where there are three public school academies with varying educational models, along with traditional public schools — would be a good place to study whether school choice leads to improved academics in the community at large. "If the conventional schools say they’ve improved, perhaps it’s because of the competition."
The numbers show that in some cases, while charters narrowed the gap between themselves and state averages, host districts lowered the gap between themselves and charter schools.
"Quality always drives quality," Quisenberry said on the same topic. "Good people running good schools will say, ‘Hey, they’re gaining on us.’"
Black River was chartered by Grand Valley State University in 1996. Right now, Michigan law has limited the number of charter schools that public universities can authorize to 150. Conventional school districts, intermediate school districts and community colleges also can authorize charter schools. A total of 225 charter schools were in operation in 2005-2006.
Asked if the MEAP results are an argument for lifting that cap, Quisenberry said the larger question is how to create more quality schools in general. One way would be to make it easier to replicate successful programs already found in charter schools as well as conventional public schools.
In some traditional school districts, principals and teachers do not have the authority they need to implement change, he said. "Why are we getting in the way of those people who want to achieve success? … From a policy standpoint, how do we remove obstacles so they can respond?"
MEAP scores are important to public schools because they are a factor in determining if the school meets the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law. Schools that do not make Adequate Yearly Progress, determined in part by standardized test scores, may be required to offer tutoring or allow students to attend a different school at public expense, among other sanctions.