A push for charter schools, but little difference in test scores

Written By Dan Mihalopoulos Posted: 04/15/2014, 09:55am

Since Mayor Rahm Emanuel took office in 2011, Chicago has ordered the closings of dozens of neighborhood public schools while approving a new wave of publicly financed, privately operated charter schools, in a much-touted effort to improve education.

Emanuel’s push continues an effort begun under former Mayor Richard M. Daley and supported by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan that’s seen the number of privately run schools across the city grow from none in 1996 to more than 130 today, with more set to open later this year. Charters and other privately run schools now serve nearly one of every seven Chicago public school students.

But even as many parents have embraced the new schools, there’s little evidence in standardized test results that charters are performing better than traditional schools operated by the Chicago Public Schools system, an examination by the Chicago Sun-Times and the Medill Data Project at Northwestern University has found.

In fact, in 2013, CPS schools had a higher percentage of elementary students who exceeded the standards for state tests for reading and math than the schools that are privately run with Chicago taxpayer funds.

That was true for all CPS-run schools and also just for traditional neighborhood schools, which don’t require admissions tests or offer specialized courses of instruction.

The analysis looked at the scores of every Chicago student who took the state tests last year — nearly 173,000 students at traditional CPS-run schools and more than 23,000 students at charter schools and the much smaller group attending so-called contract schools. Like charters, contract schools are run by private organizations with the authorization and financial backing of Chicago schools officials.

The Sun-Times/Medill Data Project analysis showed: 

◆ On the math portion of the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, 7.3 percent of CPS neighborhood school students exceeded standards, while 5.3 percent of kids at the privately run schools did so.

◆ Among charter or contract elementary students, 7.9 percent exceeded standards on the ISAT for reading, compared with 9.8 percent of students at neighborhood schools. The ISAT in math and reading is given to third- through eighth-graders. 

◆ Neighborhood and privately run high schools both saw just 1.6 percent of their students exceeding standards for reading on the Prairie State Achievement Examination, which is given to high school juniors. 

◆ Charters and contract schools edged out neighborhood high schools — 1.3 percent to 0.7 percent — when it came to exceeding standards on the math portion of the PSAE last year.

◆ Students at CPS’ selective-enrollment, classical, magnet and other schools with admissions tests or specialized offerings posted far better results than those at both charter and neighborhood schools. 

◆ As with neighborhood schools, there is a wide range in the test scores of charter schools, even within some of Chicago’s largest charter chains. 



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Take the Chicago International Charter Schools, a chain with more than 9,000 students across the city. It had one of the best-scoring elementary charter schools in the city last year — CICS Irving Park. But its Larry Hawkins and Lloyd Bond schools on the South Side posted some of the weakest results.

Beth Purvis, chief executive officer of the CICS network, acknowledges that some of the chain’s schools are underperforming but said they are improving in ways not yet reflected in the state tests. She said a better measure of a school’s effectiveness is how much students grow compared to their level upon starting at the school.

“Although the ISAT scores don’t look good, and you would say, ‘Whoa, these kids are performing quite low,’ the average child in the early grades is making over a year’s gain in 10 months at school,” Purvis said of Lloyd Bond, an elementary campus. 

As poorly as Lloyd Bond and Larry Hawkins students scored on tests, kids at nearby public schools did even worse, Purvis said.

“Kids come to these campuses with very limited resources, from families with little educational background themselves,” she said. “We’re all struggling down there. We are not satisfied with the performance and want to get better.”

Barbara Byrd-Bennett, Emanuel’s schools chief executive, said Friday the district is intent on holding “every school, regardless of school type, accountable to rigorous academic standards.

“Our top priority is ensuring our students graduate 100 percent college-ready and 100 percent college-bound,” she said.

Joel Hood, a CPS spokesman, said the average charter high school student’s ACT score was “0.4 points greater” than at other district schools and that charter high schools have better attendance and graduation rates than comparable district-run schools. He said charter elementary students are at least meeting standards on state exams more often than children taking tests at “comparable district-managed schools.”

But education experts say meeting the state standard isn’t enough to put a student on track for college, that exceeding standards is necessary for future success.

Rather than look at the percentage of students exceeding or meeting standards, some experts prefer to calculate average scores on the state tests. By that measure, too, elementary students at charter schools and neighborhood schools in Chicago were in a virtual tie on the reading and math exams last year, the Sun-Times/Medill Data Project analysis found. And the average test scores for charter high schools were only slightly higher than those at the city’s neighborhood high schools.

The analysis included results from 48 traditional CPS schools — almost all of them neighborhood schools — that the city closed after the last school year, citing poor academic performance, declining enrollment and the costs of maintaining aging buildings.

Neither charters nor neighborhood schools require admissions tests. Unlike charter schools, which can draw students from a broad geographic area, neighborhood schools must adhere to CPS’ attendance boundaries.

Some education experts say charters are most comparable to magnet schools — which dramatically outperform charters in Chicago — in that both use random lotteries when there are more applicants than available seats.

The analysis of the 2013 test results was similar to what CPS officials found in a 2010 study ordered by Terry Mazany, who was interim schools chief during the last six months of the Daley administration. According to previously unreleased records, that internal review found that charter students did far worse on the ISAT than students at CPS-run magnet schools and only slightly better than students at neighborhood schools.

“The results showed that they were virtually identical,” Mazany said of the 2010 study. “I found that surprising because charters are based on a model that they have greater freedom, opportunity to be innovative and be more flexible. So I would have intuitively expected they would have been performing much better than the neighborhood schools they were pitted against.”

Mazany, who is president and chief executive officer of the Chicago Community Trust, said the new analysis shows charter elementary schools still don’t show any advantage over neighborhood schools.

Pointing to charters’ slightly higher scores on the PSAE as well as the ACT, though, Mazany said, “For the high schools, charter schools have developed an approach that is trending toward outperforming the neighborhood high schools.”

Mazany said that encouraging more charters won’t necessarily improve student performance.

“The growth of charter schools is based on the hypothesis that choice drives improvement,” he said. “What we’ve seen from your analysis is that choice is not sufficient. . . . It’s not a silver bullet.”

More important than opening more charters, Mazany said, is how CPS addresses funding problems, disengaged parents and what he decried as the poor preparation of some teachers and principals.

In Illinois, charter schools were first allowed in the late 1990s, and they remain concentrated largely in Chicago. The number of students attending charters and contract schools in Chicago topped 57,000 at the beginning of this school year. There are 133 of the privately run schools, up dramatically from 22 schools with about 15,000 students seven years ago.

Mazany called on CPS leaders to crack down more aggressively on poorly performing charter schools.

“I do think there needs to be a higher bar set for what is expected of these schools,” Mazany said. “Clearly, the district — for neighborhood schools — has looked at closing low-performing schools. I don’t see that same standard applied for charters. The lower-performing schools seem to linger. There is advocacy around keeping them open.”

CPS officials said they created a “warning list” last year for low-scoring charters, telling them they must improve or ultimately face closing. And Byrd-Bennett noted that two charters were closed in 2013 for poor performance. “When any school fails to perform to the standards our students deserve, we will take action,” she said.

Two national studies in recent years also found little difference in test scores between charters and other public schools in many areas across the country, said Elaine Allensworth, director of the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.

“Overall, it doesn’t seem charters are doing any better with the kids they get, but there is a lot of variation in performance among charters,” Allensworth said. “The bigger question is: What are they doing at higher-performing schools that make them better and that can be passed on to other schools?”

Darnell Little is editor of the Medill Data Project at Northwestern University.



Use this map to see where CPS schools — charters as well as traditional schools — are located and to see how their students performed on state tests last year.


School type definitions:

Neighborhood: Public school with attendance boundaries, no entrance exams.

Charter: Privately run, publicly financed school with no attendance boundaries or entrance exams. Uses random lottery if more applications than spaces.

Career Academy: Public school where students selected by test scores. Students receive career-focused education in different fields.

Contract: Privately run, publicly financed school with no attendance boundaries or entrance exams. Uses random lottery if more applications than spaces.Magnet: Public school with no attendance boundaries or entrance exams. Uses random lottery. Specializes in specific subject area.

Military Academy: Public school with no attendance boundaries or entrance exams but requires an admission interview and “acceptance based on academic achievement.” Students receive military training.

Selective Enrollment: Public school with entrance exams, no attendance boundaries.

Small: Public school with attendance boundaries, no entrance exams. Population limited to 600 students.

Classical: Public school with entrance exams, no attendance boundaries. Provides liberal arts course of instruction.

Regional Gifted Center: Public school with entrance exams, no attendance boundaries. Provides “accelerated instructional program.”

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