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Study finds test scores lower at charter schools

Saturday, March 24, 2001

By Jane Elizabeth, Post-Gazette Education Writer

Correction/Clarification: (Published March 28, 2001) In a study comparing the test scores of pupils in four charter schools in Pennsylvania to those of students in other schools in the same districts, the latter group showed a 14-point gain over a two-year period -- compared to a 100-point improvement by the charter-school students. A story in Saturday's Post-Gazette about the study overstated the first group's improvement. Also, a box accompanying the story incorrectly said charter schools spent 69 percent of their budgets on instructional items. The actual figure was 59 percent.

The charter school movement has been fueled by parents who are unhappy with their regular public schools' low achievement scores and who believe school administrators don't appreciate their input.

But a new study of Pennsylvania's charter schools indicates that test scores actually are much lower in charter schools than in regular public schools.

And it says that charter school parents -- even though the charters demand their participation -- aren't heavily involved in their children's schools.

From the
charter school study


Average enrollment, 265 students
78 percent affiliated with community or ethnic groups
Spent 59 percent of budget on instructional items, compared to 66 percent for districts
Most ended the year with budget surpluses
15 new schools scheduled to open in the fall
70 pending applications


33 percent say classmates are more interested in learning than students at their previous schools
50 percent would recommend their charter school to a friend
1,800 students left Philadelphia charter schools between spring 1999 and spring 2000 to return to their regular schools
11,000 students on charter school waiting lists


Average level of experience, five years
Average salary, $30,000 (State public school average, $48,000)
About half are under 30, compared with 11 percent in districts
4 percent are certified to teach in other states but not in Pennsylvania
72 percent say the school mission is followed "well" or "very well"
25-33 percent say they're satisfied with the school facility

Source: Western Michigan University, Pennsylvania Department of Education


A 17-month study by Western Michigan University compared charter school test scores with their regular district school scores and found that charter schools were outperformed by about 50 points on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests given to fifth-, eighth- and 11th-graders.

Another comparison of charter schools with "demographically similar" non-charter schools produced the same results.

While acknowledging that the test-score study was limited in part by a lack of data provided by the charter schools, the researchers maintained that "charter schools as a group produced PSSA scores that were considerably lower than all non-charter public schools in the Commonwealth."

The study, released yesterday, also showed that 80 percent of Pennsylvania's charter school students are non-white. Nationwide, that figure is 52 percent.

The report is part of a study mandated by Pennsylvania's charter school law, passed in 1997. Charter schools are public schools that are funded by the home school district but run by an independent board.

Western Michigan researchers were hired for $178,000 for the first two phases of the five-year study. The report examines the 31 charter schools that were opened during the 1998-99 school year and the 17 new schools opened in 1999-2000.

Currently, there are about 21,000 students -- or about 1 percent of the total state school population -- enrolled in 65 charter schools across the state.

Eugene W. Hickok, Pennsylvania's education secretary, defended the lackluster test scores by saying that charter schools have attracted low-performing students who want to improve their education.

"Charter-school critics once theorized that charter schools would attract the highest-performing students from our traditional public schools, leaving behind those most in need," said Hickok, who will leave his post next week to become an undersecretary in the U.S. Department of Education.

"Instead, this study shows our charter schools also are reaching out to our lowest-performing students and making great strides at helping them achieve greater success."

Hickok focused on one of the few optimistic findings in the study of charter schools, a cornerstone of Gov. Tom Ridge's education reforms.

A study of four charter schools -- the only ones for which sufficient data was available -- showed PSSA gains of more than 100 points in just two years, while their "host districts" gained 86 points over the same time period.

Hickok also pointed out that students from a sample of charter schools -- a sample that researchers called "non-representative" -- also had gains on national standardized tests such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.

"This study demonstrates that charter schools have the ability to make a significant impact on the lives of the children they serve," said Hickok. "However, to continue to be a meaningful choice to all Pennsylvania families, our charter schools must work toward sustaining this type of improvement in future years."

While the report doesn't specifically discuss the reasons for the high percentage of non-white students in charter schools, state officials offered a few reasons.

The majority of charter schools in Pennsylvania are centered around Philadelphia, which has a large non-white population. Also, many charter schools in Pennsylvania have an ethnic theme and emphasize Afrocentric or Hispanic studies.

Charter schools traditionally begin in inner-city or urban areas and then spread to outlying suburbs, said education department spokesman Al Bowman. He added that the racial makeup is expected to change as more charters open.

The survey had a 90 percent response rate from students. Between 73 and 83 percent of teachers also responded.

But only about 50 percent of parents answered the survey. And only about one-fourth of those said they volunteered more than three hours a month in their schools, even though about 50 percent of the charter schools require a higher level of parent involvement.

Still, 83 percent of parents answered that it was "true" or "partly true" that they are "able to influence the direction and activities of their schools." And more than 90 percent said that the quality of instruction in their charter school is "high" and that their children receive adequate attention.

The survey also showed that the number of Pennsylvania certified teachers in charter schools declined from 82 percent in 1998-99 to 76 percent in 1999-2000. Unlike public schools, charter schools aren't required to hire only state-certified teachers.

While the charter school teachers most often cited "an interest in being involved in school reform" as their reason for working at those schools, researchers found the teachers didn't always realize those expectations in their jobs.

"There was a large gap between expectations and experience in teacher empowerment and the degree to which they are able to influence the steering and direction of the school," the researchers wrote.

State officials, however, attributed any disillusionment to the youthfulness of the charter school movement, and expected improvement in future studies.

"People don't always know what to expect" in a charter school, said Bowman. "They may not be what they envisioned ... but that's a part of choice." Students and teachers can go to another charter school or back to their public school district if they're unhappy, he said.

The study can be viewed on the Internet at or at

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