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Charter Schools’ Performance Called Mixed

Times Staff Writers

The nation’s charter schools received a mixed report card Wednesday in a federal study that showed their fourth-graders reading as well as their peers in regular public schools but trailing in math performance.

The findings from the National Assessment of Educational Progress also revealed that white, black and Latino fourth-graders in charter schools were on par with students from the same groups at traditional campuses in reading and math.

Federal testing officials were reluctant to draw conclusions from the pilot study of 150 charter campuses, calling the results a snapshot of performance that left many questions unanswered -- including how long students had attended the charter schools.

“You should be careful about reading into the data. It is very limited,” said Darvin Winick, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversaw the study for the government. Earlier this week, a separate Harvard University study showed charter school students doing better than their counterparts in reading and math.

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Supporters and opponents seized on the results released Wednesday to advance their agendas on charter schools.

Advocates argued that charter campuses deserved credit for keeping up with regular public schools even though they serve disproportionate numbers of low-performing students in urban centers and have fewer experienced teachers.

Like regular public schools, charter campuses are publicly funded, but they are allowed to operate outside many local and state regulations with the expectation that they will raise academic achievement.

“In many ways, charter school students are holding their own with public school students everywhere,” Eugene W. Hickok, deputy secretary of Education, said at a Washington briefing, where he called the findings “good news.”

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But critics of the burgeoning charter movement, which has grown nationally to more than 3,000 schools serving nearly 1 million students since the early 1990s, were more critical. They pointed out that low-income fourth-graders in charter schools did worse in reading and math than poor children in traditional schools, according to the federal study.

And they contended that charter schools actually did worse in reading if special education students were not included. Such students accounted for 8% of the charter school sample but 11% of those in the regular school group.

“If our much-maligned public schools are failing, [charter schools] are failing too, and often at significantly worse levels,” Bella Rosenberg of the American Federation of Teachers said at the Washington briefing. “You would expect those in operation the longest to perform the best. But they didn’t.”

Wednesday’s report was based on tests given in 2003 to about 3,200 charter school fourth-graders nationwide. Among the findings:

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* Charter schools serve greater percentages of black students than traditional schools, and more students from urban areas. Both types of schools serve about the same percentages of low-income children -- about four in 10 of their students are considered poor.

* 27% of fourth-graders in charter schools were proficient or advanced in reading -- no statistical difference from the 30% of their peers in regular schools who were proficient.

* 25% of charter school students were proficient in math -- statistically lower than the 31% of students in other public schools who were proficient.

Wednesday’s federal report followed the release of the Harvard study Tuesday that found that charter school students consistently outperformed their counterparts in reading and math.

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The study examined charter school performance in the 2002-03 school year in 36 states that had such campuses. It compared reading and math performance of third-, fourth- and fifth-graders in charter schools with peers in nearby public schools.

In California, charter school fourth-graders were 8.5% more likely to be proficient in reading than were students in traditional schools, the report found. The charter students were 5% more likely to be proficient in math.

California has 512 charter schools serving 186,000 students, or about 3% of the state’s 6 million public school students.

The study’s author, economist Caroline Hoxby, said her research showed that charter schools got better with time. “They are evolving because market forces [require] them to pay more attention to what parents want,” she said.

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Others who study charter schools said it was still too soon to draw conclusions because researchers had not found a way to account for the huge diversity among charter schools.

For example, some campuses serve dropouts, while others serve neighborhood children. And while many arise in existing schools, others start from the ground up or belong to larger charter school chains.

The experts said further studies were needed to determine the effect of charter schools on academic achievement.

“We need to pick these schools apart,” said Priscilla Wohlstetter, director of USC’s Center on Educational Governance. “We cannot make a definitive statement that says charter schools are successful until we mark their progress from year to year.”

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Helfand reported from Los Angeles, Anderson from Washington.


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