Commentary

New report points to declining student growth in NC charter schools

The materials for this week’s North Carolina State Board of Education meeting include a new report on charter school performance, highlighting a potentially troubling trend in charter performance.

The State Board established the Annual Charter Schools Update to set goals and measures for charter schools and “to annually monitor and track performance trends.”  The report details charter performance along just four measures:

  1. Percentage of charter schools with 60% or more of their students scoring at Level 4 and above (i.e., meeting the state’s “college-and-career-ready” standard) on state end-of-grade and end-of-course assessments.
  2. Percentage of charter schools with 60% or more of their students scoring at Level 3 and above (i.e., meeting the state’s “grade-level proficiency” standard) on state end-of-grade and end-of-course assessments.
  3. Percentage of charter schools meeting or exceeding expected annual academic growth.
  4. Percentage of charter schools meeting or exceeding all financial and operational goals as measured by the Office of Charter School’s performance framework.

Of the three academic measures, the percentage of charter schools meeting or exceeding expected annual academic growth is the most important for determining the extent to which schools are doing their primary job of improving student outcomes.  Raw test score data, such as measures one and two, are highly correlated to student socio-economic status.  Such measures say more about what types of students are being tested, rather than whether the school is doing a good job of teaching those students.  In contrast, the state’s academic growth measure compares student performance against other North Carolina students with similar academic preparedness.  In other words, the state’s academic growth measure provides a way to compare student performance across schools in a way that takes into account student backgrounds.

Given the importance of student growth measures, the Annual Charter Schools Update points to a potentially troubling trend in charter schools.  From the 2012-13 school year to the 2015-16 school year, the percentage of charter schools meeting or exceeding expected annual academic growth has fallen each year.  During the 2012-13 year, 82.7% of charter schools met or exceeded annual growth.  By 2015-16, only 70.1% of charter schools met or exceeded annual growth.

charter-growth

While the share of charter schools meeting or exceeding annual growth has been falling, the trend in traditional public schools has been relatively flat.  In the 2015-16 school year, 73.8% of traditional public schools met or exceeded annual growth, compared to just 70.1% of charter schools.

Reporting from Lindsay Wagner at the AJ Fletcher Foundation indicates that newer charter schools are driving this negative performance trend.  Weak performance from newly-approved charter schools was the easily-foreseeable consequence of lifting the charter school cap without strict criteria for new applicants and adequate oversight of newly-operating schools.  Raleigh policymakers should heed this evidence and resist efforts to water down standards for new charter approvals.  Instead policymakers should increase the scrutiny paid towards new charter applicants and strengthen North Carolina’s charter school oversight policies until these troubling trends are reversed.

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