Friday, October 30, 2009

Heavy Dose of Context Needed on NYC DOE 'Power-Point' on Charter v. District Scores

Meredith Kolodner's article in today's Daily News says that a report by the New York City Department of Education shows that "charter schools have done worse than traditional public schools according to the department's own measurements."

Not really.

A little--actually, a lot--of context is in order here; the key words being according to the department's own measurements. Key measures from this report (a power-point, actually) are highly subjective and misleading, especially some of the data selected for use in this article.

For example, the "overall scores" used to compare charter schools versus district schools (with charters scoring lower) consists of a subjective weighting of four measures: school environment, student performance, student progress and the "additional credit" -- this latter one an especially inchoate category using "exemplary progress" in certain circumstances. By far the "student progress" measure is assigned the most weight of 60 points out of 100, while "student performance" is assigned only 25 points -- fewer than half the progress measure. Both measures are important, but woefully lopsided.

For all those charter schools that by 2009 had students scoring high for several years running, including those operated by Icahn, KIPP, Renaissance and many others, you're not going to find too much student "progress." This weighted measure therefore unfairly downplays high-performing charter schools in the overall DOE score.

Charter Schools are Outperforming District Schools
The Daily News story saw fit to report that City district schools overall scored at 80.5 "points" (as compiled by the DOE) which supposedly outperforms charter schools, scoring at 77.9 -- a whopping 2.6 points below. Considering the skewed weighting the DOE assigns for student progress, these scores are flawed by severely diminishing the impact of already high-performing charters.

When reviewing student performance, the same DOE report shows charters scoring higher than district schools, 20.6 points to 19.3. A more proper and accurate measure of performance must give a greater account for the percentage of students meeting or exceeding state performance standards.

For mathematics, 90.7 percent of NYC charter students in 2009 were proficient on the state tests for grades 3 thru 8 compared to 78.7 percent of City students in those same community school districts with charter schools, i.e., the "host" CSDs. For the state English language arts exam, 77.4 percent of charter school students were proficient compared to 65.5 percent of district students.

In fact, this same DOE's report showed charter schools outperforming district schools on these exams for the last four years -- and scoring higher year-after-year, to boot. This the Daily News article overlooked, or ran out of space to report. For additional perspective, the article failed to remind its readers of the study by Stanford professor, Caroline Hoxby, from last month that also showed higher student performance in the City's charter schools.

Special Education Students
And what of special education students? The percentage gap of 7 points between charter schools and district schools is not at all significant (district schools have 16 percent of their students labeled as "special education" versus charter schools with 9 percent). A variety of factors contribute to this difference, including charter schools having space needs with many using operating funds to pay for facilities; and that charters are schools of choice, i.e., they cannot select a student with special needs over a student who does not.

In addition, urban districts are notorious for assigning too many students to special education, which generates additional federal and state funding. Some of this may be due to students who by middle school get assigned to special education as a result of inadequate literacy and insufficient discipline in elementary grades.

Charters Serve More "At-Risk" Students
This same DOE report, however, also claims that "New York City charter schools serve higher proportions of 'at-risk' student populations than NYC averages." For example, 80 percent of charter school students qualify for federal lunch programs for poverty households and 92 percent of the students are African-American or Latino.

For all the handwringing about special ed students and students with English language needs, charter schools are in fact serving and benefiting a greater proportion of students deemed "at risk" than the City as a whole. As for students with limited English proficiency, by all means the DOE should carefully review the patterns here, which may be isolated to certain areas of the City, with or without charter schools, where there are concentrations of need.

The upshot of all this is that on reliable, straightforward measures, charter schools are outperforming district schools in New York City and in most other districts around the state with charters. The data from the state exams shows this plainly; and recent studies from Stanford University (Hoxby) and the Manhattan Institute (Winters) substantiate this favorable charter comparison.

Yet today, we are presented with a hodgepodge compilation of numbers cherry-picked for an article resulting in a false and misleading comparison between the academic performance of charter and district schools with zero context added. All of this comes less than a week before a Mayoral election, no less, enabling one Patrick Sullivan of the City's education policy board his embellished anti-charter talking-point. What a coincidence.

Peter Murphy
for The Chalkboard

Disclaimer: The Chalkboard is hosted by the New York Charter Schools Association (NYCSA) as a place where members, public education advocates and others can view and respond to informed commentary on timely public education and charter school issues. The views expressed here are not necessarily the official views of the NYCSA, its board, or of any of its individual charter school members. Anyone who claims otherwise is violating the spirit and purpose of this blog. To comment on anything you read here, or to offer tips, advice, comments, or complaints. please contact TheChalkboard.