More than scores

New research takes an in-depth look at Chicago charter schools — and finds good news beyond test scores

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Charles Wiriawan

Most of what we know about the effectiveness of charter schools has come from scrutinizing testing data. That’s frustrated some who see the focus on test scores as too narrow. Now, a major study recently released by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research joins a growing body of research that moves beyond tests to judge charters.

This analysis focuses on charter high schools in Chicago, which now educate over a fifth of Chicago high school students. The main takeaways: charter schools seem to help students in the short- and long-run, but those schools also have higher student turnover.

“Test scores are important, but so are other things,” said Julia Gwynne, one of the study’s authors.

The study’s findings will provide grist for both supporters and critics of charter schools. It also offers a number of important takeaways for national charter school observers.

The study shows that one of the larger charter high school sectors in the country is having big positive effects on students.

Attending a charter high school in Chicago led to substantial improvements in test scores, high school attendance, college enrollment, and college persistence.

These effects were relatively big: charter students were in attendance about eight more days on average and scored a full point higher on the ACT (which is out of 36 points). They were nearly 20 percentage points more likely to enroll in a four-year college, and also much more likely to persist in college through four semesters.

“The college enrollment rates are quite high – I would put that at a very sizable difference,” said Gwynne.

Source: UChicago Consortium of School Research

(It’s worth pausing here to note that although charters had a big edge in getting students to college, the college persistence for both sets of students was fairly low, echoing a national trend.)

These are not just raw comparisons of performance: the authors control for a variety of factors that might affect student performance in high school, including poverty, eighth grade test scores and attendance rates, and special education status. This strongly suggests that differences between students are caused by the quality of their schools. The study largely uses data between 2010 and 2013, although the paper goes further back to assess college outcomes, focusing on students who entered high school between 2008 and 2010.

These results are consistent with another recent study showing that Noble, a large charter network in Chicago, led to a big boost in college attendance.

On one important measure charter students were on par with district kids: high school graduation rates were essentially identical.

Interestingly, the results from this study are quite similar to research on Boston’s charter schools. Students there saw big gains in test scores and four-year college enrollment, but the same or lower high school graduation rates.

It’s among the first studies to document a common criticism lobbed at charter schools: high rates of student attrition.

There’s a big caveat to these findings: students are much more likely to leave a charter high school than a district one.

The natural question when considering the two main findings from the study — better outcomes but higher transfer rates — is whether one causes the other. That is, do Chicago charters just get better results because only more successful kids stick around? No, at least not directly.

To measure the effects of charters, the study follows students over time. Charter schools are judged by the performance of all students who start ninth grade at a charter — even if they subsequently transfer out. This is a common technique among researchers and means that the estimated charter impacts are likely conservative.

Still, the paper adds weight to a criticism that has dogged charters across the country: that they push kids out who are struggling or who have behavior problems. There have been a number of anecdotes to support this, but previous studies in a few districts, including New York City and Denver, had generally found little evidence that students leave charters at high rates.

Generally, low-achieving students in Chicago charters were more likely to transfer out than high-achieving ones — but that pattern was also true in district schools. Charter high schools had high attrition rates among both high- and low-performing kids.

The research does not show why students were more likely to leave charter schools.

Source: UChicago Consortium of School Research

The study highlights that even in a successful charter sector, there are some really low-performing schools.

It’s often heard in the charter school debate: charter success varies significantly from school to school. This is hardly surprising; it’s true of district schools too. But the Chicago study finds that on measures like test scores and college enrollment, charters vary even more than district schools in their impact on students.

That means there are more really good charter schools, but also more bad ones, even as on average the charters are better. (There is some evidence that is true of charter schools in Arizona, North Carolina, and Texas.)

Source: UChicago Consortium of School Research

The findings suggests that policymakers should be wary of judging a school by its sector, and that they need to be especially vigilant for struggling charter schools.

The study hints at — though doesn’t definitively explain — why some charter schools are successful.

The latest research can’t show why, overall, Chicago’s charter high schools seem to be high-performing, but it can point to ways they differ from district schools.

Charter high school teachers reported a higher sense of trust and collective responsibility among colleagues. Charter students said their schools were more engaged in helping them plan for life after high school, and teachers said there were greater expectations for college attendance. The schools also had tougher requirements for moving on to the next grade and for graduating high school.

Perhaps surprisingly, charters had a similar number of school days as the district.

Charter schools may have certain advantages over district schools. For instance, charter teachers report that parents are significantly more involved in schools; this may be a reflection of how charters work with parents, but it could also be about the families who select charters (or both).

The fact that charter schools have higher transfer rates may also matter, as does the finding that those students usually end up in district schools. Other research has shown that students entering school mid-year can hurt the performance of their peers, which might be a particular challenge for Chicago’s neighborhood schools.

The study does not look at financial differences across the sectors, including the role of outside money in supporting charter schools, nor does it examine school discipline or student suspension rates.

“What our next steps should be — really understanding best practices in high-performing charter schools is probably at the top of the list,” said Gwynne, the researcher. “To really understand what’s happening on the ground, you need to send researchers into schools.”

measuring up

After criticism, Denver will change the way it rates elementary schools

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Eva Severance, a first-grader, concentrates on a reading lesson at Lincoln Elementary in Denver.

Facing criticism that its school ratings overstated young students’ reading abilities, the Denver school district announced it will change the way elementary schools are rated next year.

The district will increase the number of students in kindergarten, first, second, and third grade who must score at grade-level on early literacy tests for a school to earn points on the district’s rating scale, and decrease how many points those scores will be worth, officials said.

The changes will lessen the impact of early literacy scores on a school’s overall rating, while also raising the bar on how many students must ace the tests for a school to be considered good. Denver rates schools on a color-coded scale from blue (the highest) to red (the lowest).

“We want to see more students making more progress,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said.

Local civil rights groups, elected officials, educators, and education advocates criticized Denver Public Schools this year for misleading students and families with what they characterized as inflated school ratings based partly on overstated early literacy gains.

“At a time when this country is at war on truth, we have an obligation to Denver families to give them a true picture of their schools’ performance,” state Sen. Angela Williams, a Denver Democrat, told Boasberg and the school board at a meeting in December.

The groups had asked the district to revise this year’s ratings, which were issued in October. Boasberg refused, saying, “If you’re going to change the rules of the game, it’s certainly advisable to change them before the game starts.” That’s what the district is doing for next year.

The state requires students in kindergarten through third grade to take the early literacy tests as a way to identify for extra help students who are struggling the most to learn to read. Research shows third graders who don’t read proficiently are four times as likely to fail out of high school. In Denver, most schools administer an early literacy test called iStation.

The state also requires students in third through ninth grade to take a literacy test called PARCC, which is more rigorous. Third-graders are the only students who take both tests.

The issue is that many third-graders who scored well on iStation did not score well on PARCC. At Castro Elementary in southwest Denver, for example, 73 percent of third-graders scored at grade-level or above on iStation, but just 17 percent did on PARCC.

Denver’s school ratings system, called the School Performance Framework, or SPF, has always relied heavily on state test scores. But this year, the weight given to the early literacy scores increased from 10 percent to 34 percent of the overall rating because the district added points for how well certain groups, such as students from low-income families, did on the tests.

That added weight, plus the discrepancy between how third-graders scored on PARCC and how they scored on iStation, raised concerns about the validity of the ratings.

At a school board work session earlier this week, Boasberg called those concerns “understandable.” He laid out the district’s two-pronged approach to addressing them, noting that the changes planned for next year are a stop-gap measure until the district can make a more significant change in 2019 that will hopefully minimize the discrepancy between the tests.

Next year, the district will increase the percentage of students who must score at grade-level on the early literacy tests. Currently, fewer than half of an elementary school’s students must score that way for a school to earn points, said Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova. The district hasn’t yet settled on what the number will be for next year, but it will likely be more than 70 percent, she said. The more points a school earns, the higher its color rating.

The district will also reduce the impact the early literacy test scores have on the ratings by cutting in half the number of points schools can earn related to the tests, Cordova said. This makes the stakes a little lower, even as the district sets a higher bar.

The number of points will go back up in 2019 when the district makes a more significant change, officials said. The change has to do with how the tests are scored.

For the past several years, the district has used the “cut points” set by the test vendors to determine which students are reading at grade-level and which are not. But the discrepancy between the third-grade iStation and PARCC reading scores – and the public outcry it sparked – has caused officials to conclude the vendor cut points are too low.

District officials said they have asked the vendors and the state education department to raise the cut points. But even if they agree, that isn’t a simple or quick fix. In the meantime, the district has developed a set of targets it calls “aimlines” that show how high a student must score on the early literacy tests to be on track to score at grade-level on PARCC, which district officials consider the gold standard measure of what students should know.

The aimlines are essentially higher expectations. A student could be judged to be reading at grade-level according to iStation but considered off-track according to the aimlines.

In 2019, the district will use those aimlines instead of the vendor cut points for the purpose of rating schools. Part of the reason the district is waiting until 2019 is to gather another year of test score data to make sure the aimlines are truly predictive, officials said.

However, the district is encouraging schools to start looking at the aimlines this year. It is also telling families how their students are doing when measured against them. Schools sent letters home to families this past week, a step district critics previously said was a good start.

Van Schoales, CEO of the advocacy group A Plus Colorado, has been among the most persistent critics of this year’s elementary school ratings. He said he’s thrilled the district listened to community concerns and is making changes for next year, though he said it still has work to do to make the ratings easier to understand and more helpful to families.

“We know it’s complicated,” he said. “There is no perfect SPF. We just think we can get to a more perfect SPF with conversations between the district and community folks.”

The district announced other changes to the School Performance Framework next year that will affect all schools, not just elementary schools. They include:

  • Not rating schools on measures for which there is only one year of data available.

Denver’s ratings have always been based on two years of data: for instance, how many students of color met expectations on state math tests in 2016 and how many met expectations in 2017.

But if a school doesn’t have data for one of those years, it will no longer be rated on that measure. One way that could happen is if a school has 20 students of color one year but only 12 the next. Schools must have at least 16 students in a category for their scores to count.

The goal, officials said, is to be more fair and accurate. Some schools complained that judging them based on just one year of data wasn’t fully capturing their performance or progress.

  • Applying the “academic gaps indicator” to all schools without exception.

This year, the district applied a new rule that schools with big gaps between less privileged and more privileged students couldn’t earn its two highest color ratings, blue and green. Schools had to be blue or green on a new “academic gaps indicator” to be blue or green overall.

But district officials made an exception for three schools where nearly all students were from low-income families, reasoning it was difficult to measure gaps when there were so few wealthier students. However, Boasberg said that after soliciting feedback from educators, parents, and advocates, “the overwhelming sentiment was that it should apply to all schools,” in part because it was difficult to find a “natural demographic break point” for exceptions.

Contract review

Here’s what a deeper probe of grade changing at Memphis schools will cost

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The board of education for Shelby County Schools is reviewing another contract with a Memphis firm hired last year to look into allegations of grade tampering at Trezevant High School. Board members will discuss the new contract Feb. 20 and vote on it Feb. 27.

A proposed contract with the accounting firm hired to examine Memphis schools with high instances of grade changes contains new details on the scope of the investigation already underway in Shelby County Schools.

The school board is reviewing a $145,000 contract with Dixon Hughes Goodman, the Memphis firm that last year identified nine high schools as having 199 or more grade changes between July 2012 and October 2016. Seven of those are part of the deeper probe, since two others are now outside of the Memphis district’s control.

The investigation includes:

  • Interviewing teachers and administrators;
  • Comparing paper grade books to electronic ones and accompanying grade change forms;
  • Inspecting policies and procedures for how school employees track and submit grades

In December, the firm recommended “further investigation” into schools with high instances of grade changes. At that time, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson emphasized that not all changes of grades from failing to passing are malicious, but said the district needs to ensure that any changes are proper.

Based on the firm’s hourly rate, a deeper probe could take from 300 to 900 hours. The initial review lasted four months before the firm submitted its report to Shelby County Schools.

The school board is scheduled to vote on the contract Feb. 27.

You can read the full agreement below: