Fourth graders in charter schools score somewhat lower in reading and math than students in district-run public schools, according to a new National Center for Education Statistics analysis of 2003 NAEP data. Researchers included caveats
Parents may have been attracted to charter schools because they felt that their children were not well-served by public schools, and these children may have lagged behind their classmates. On the other hand, the parents of these children may be more involved in their children’s schooling and provide greater support and encouragement. Without further information, such as measures of prior achievement, there is no way to determine how patterns of self-selection may have affected the estimates presented.
The study tries to compare similar students, but the measure of poverty is how many students qualify for a free lunch, a notoriously unreliable indicator. Many charter schools don’t participate in the federal lunch program, notes Center for Education Reform, which says its surveys show a higher poverty rate in charter schools than in traditional public schools.
Eduwonk criticizes the AP coverage, recommends Education Week and concludes for story-skippers’ benefit, that the study doesn’t answer the critical questions about effectiveness because it’s not randomized, tells nothing about students’ performance before enrolling, doesn’t track students over time and is based on dubious poverty data.
In addition, the charter sector is getting so heterogeneous (for good and ill) that increasingly “charter” is a meaningless label for a school. For instance what does MATCH, the best open-admission high school in Boston, have in common with some out-of-control online school in Ohio? That problem is going to become even more pronounced if lots of low-performing charter schools get converted into “charter” schools.
As Eduwonk writes, we need neutral foundation-funded research to settle some of these questions. It shouldn’t be that hard to establish the poverty rate of charter students.
Update: In the Washington Post story, the NCES head says the study provides no guidance for parents trying to choose a school and Fordham’s Checker Finn calls it a “big yawn.”