by Jon Pelto, Wait, What
Achievement First and other major urban charter schools base their demand for more public funds by claiming that their standardized test scores prove that their charter schools are providing students with a superior education.
However, there is a fundamental flaw in the argument these charter school advocates are putting forward.
Putting aside the broader problems associated with using standardized mastery tests to measure educational outcomes; there is overwhelming evidence that test scores are impacted by a number of factors beyond simply what is going on in the classroom.
Study after study has indicated that poverty and standardized test scores (like the mastery test) are closely correlated. More poverty means lower school test scores; less poverty means higher school test scores.
What policymakers are not regularly told is that although poverty level in all urban schools are high (both at charter and at traditional public schools), the students at many of Connecticut’s urban charter schools are significantly “less poor” than the students who attend the public schools in those same communities.
In Bridgeport, where 99% of the city’s public school students qualify for free or reduced lunches, according to the data provided to the State Department of Education, the number of students who meet that standard at Achievement First’s Bridgeport Academy is more than 30 points percentage points lower.
The percentage of students at the other two major Bridgeport charters (The Bridge Academy and Park City Preparatory) who qualify for free or reduced lunches are also significantly lower than in the Bridgeport school system.
There is a similar pattern in Hartford, where 93% of public schools students qualify for free or reduced lunches compared to 68% at Achievement First’s Harford Academy and 72% at the Jumoke Academy charter school.
And it is the same in New Haven, where 81% of all New Haven public school students qualify for free or reduced lunches, while at the Amistad Academy 66% meet that poverty standard. At Achievement First’s other New Haven charter school, Elm City College Prep charter school, the number of students getting free or reduced lunches is 69%.
Considering these schools are more racially isolated these statistics indicate that charter schools have the effect of leaving the poorer students in each city’s public schools systems.
According to their marketing materials and testimony at legislative hearings, charter schools claim that their students score 10 to 30 percent better on master tests than do students in the nearby public schools.
However, a portion of that difference may be due to the poverty level of the students served in those schools.
An even greater impact may come from the language barriers students bring with them to school.
When it comes to the Connecticut Mastery Tests (3-8 grades), 84% of all Connecticut students score at the proficient or better level in math. However, for English Language Learners (ELL students) that is, “students who lack sufficient mastery of English,” the percent of students who achieve a proficient or better score drops all the way down to 57%.
The language barrier has an even more stunning impact on the test results for the reading portion of the Connecticut Mastery Test. While 78% of all Connecticut students score at the proficient level or better, only 37% of ELL (those not proficient in the English Language) test at the proficient level or better.
These numbers mean that schools that have more ELL students do significantly worse than schools that don’t have as many non-English proficient students.
So, back to the data on charter schools:
In Bridgeport, 13% of the public school students are ELL students. At Achievement First’s Bridgeport Academy the number is just 6%.
Less than ½ of 1% of the students at The Bridge Academy charter school are ELL students, while only 2.5% of the students at Park City Prep charter school are ELL.
In Hartford, where over 17% of public school students are non-English proficient (ELL), the percent of ELL students at Achievement First’s Harford Academy is less than 5% and there are literally no ELL students at the Jumoke Academy charter school.
In New Haven, the disparity is less prevalent. 12% of New Haven public school students are ELL, which is similar to the percent at the Amistad Academy charter school, but at Elm City College Prep charter school only 9% of the students are ELL.
While the impact of these statistics has yet to be fully documented, the fact remains that Connecticut’s charter schools are simply not in a position to claim that the quality of their education programs are substantially better than the education in the public schools.
Charter schools may claim that they utilize an “open lottery system and that allows every child to have access to their schools, but the facts simply don’t back up the charter schools’ claim that their student populations represent the full spectrum of students that attend public schools. Therefore their claim of educational superiority doesn’t add up.
Achievement First and a number of the other urban charter schools are more racially isolated, they educate a student population that is less poor and they fail to take on their fair share of non-English proficient (ELL) students.
While CMT test scores in charter schools may be marginally higher than public school scores, the evidence suggests that their teaching methods may not fully explain those results.