Charter Schools Produce Higher Test Scores, But Segregated Environment
Recent studies assess race, academic achievement in the nation’s charter schools
By Ben Hammer
Charter school students perform slightly better on standardized tests than their public school counterparts, but go to schools that tend to be racially segregated, two recent studies have found.
A study by the New York-based think tank the Manhattan Institute found that although charter schools tend to serve poor students who are at risk of dropping out, their students score several points higher on standardized math and science tests than public school students with similar geographic and demographic backgrounds.
Measured in 11 states over a one-year period, the study found that charter schools outperformed nearby public schools on math tests by an average of 3 percentile points and on reading tests by 2 percentile points for a student starting at the 50th percentile.
The study’s authors attributed the increase in test scores at charter schools to increased autonomy at those schools over decisions like curriculum, and the fact that parents choose to enroll their children in the schools, which suggest that they may be more involved in their children’s education.
“Charter schools benefit from the freedom they enjoy from many state regulations,” the study’s authors wrote. “With less of a regulatory burden, charter schools may be able to focus more of their energy on assisting students and enjoy greater flexibility in meeting student needs.”
Though test scores at charter schools are modestly higher than at regular public schools, the Manhattan Institute’s authors are optimistic that the scores will increase even more as charter schools have more time to develop.
“Because these test results are statistically significant, we can be very confident that the charter schools in our study did have a positive effect on test scores. However, the small size of this effect should caution us against too much enthusiasm regarding the benefits of charter schools,” the authors wrote. “The results … support the conclusion that untargeted charter schools are somewhat better than regular public schools serving similar populations, but not a great deal better.”
Some charter schools are set up to target specific populations, such as disabled or at-risk students and juvenile delinquents.
The study found the most significant gains in charter school test scores in Florida and Texas. In Texas, charter schools reached math score improvements of 7 percentile points higher than at regular public schools and reading score improvements of 8 percentile points. Florida charter schools achieved one-year math and reading improvements of 6 percentile points each for a student starting at the 50th percentile.
The study listed several reasons why charter schools showed only modest gains over regular public schools: their small size means they usually receive less funding; though they are exempt from many regulations, they still have significant regulatory burdens; and their students are still required to take standardized tests geared to state curricula, removing some freedom to make changes to the curricula.
Another study by the Harvard Civil Rights Project found that 70 percent of Black charter school students attend segregated schools compared with 34 percent of Black public school students. In almost every state studied, the average Black charter school student attended school with a higher percentage of Black students and a lower percentage of White students. Also, there are schools where White charter students are often as isolated as Black charter students. The results are mixed for Latino students (see Black Issues, July 31).
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