Public Charter Schools, A Rising Tide that Lifts All Boats

As students know all too well, spring isn’t just the time when baseball returns and flowers bloom. ‘Tis also the season for testing.

It’s important to know if students are learning as they should, and to hold schools accountable if not. But since the No Child Left Behind Act became law in 2002, ushering in an era of “high-stakes testing,” students and parents as well as teachers and administrators have wondered: Are these tests telling us anything accurate about student performance?

The short answer is, yes – but it’s worth parsing the numbers to understand them better.

Take the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, dubbed the “nation’s report card.” Between 2003 (the first year the NAEP was mandatory nationwide) and 2017 (the most recent year for which data are available), Georgia’s scores have risen. But we have improved only barely when ranked among all states: from 38th to 35th on fourth-grade math, and from 39th to 32nd on fourth-grade reading. The gains were somewhat better in the other benchmark year, eighth-grade: up 11 spots in math and 14 in reading. Yet our eighth-graders still ranked in the bottom half nationally.

That’s for all students tested. But we know certain groups tend to perform more poorly on standardized tests than others, especially those from low-income families and some racial and ethnic minorities. (For obvious but bad historical reasons, there’s a lot of overlap between those two groups.)

The Urban Institute adjusts each state’s NAEP scores for a variety of factors, including race and low-income status. Taking those factors into account, Georgia actually ranks 13th in fourth-grade math – 22 spots higher than the unadjusted ranking. Our fourth-graders rank ninth in reading, and our eighth-graders rank sixth in both math and reading.
That’s a much different picture. What it shows is Georgia is doing fairly well at educating some students who traditionally are hard to educate; we just have more hard-to-educate students than a lot of other states.

Of course, that’s of little comfort given the importance of a well-educated work force to our future economy. Employers won’t give Georgia extra credit for having a different population mix than, say, Colorado. We must lift all of our students to a high level. But how?

Happily, another long-running study points to one crucial solution: charter schools.

Stanford University’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) consistently finds charter schools are narrowing the achievement gap for racial minorities and poor students. The 2013 CREDO study (the most recent of its kind) found being in a charter school is “especially helpful” for “students in poverty, black students, and English language learners … For students with multiple designations (such as being black and in poverty), the impacts of charter schooling are especially positive and noteworthy.”
In other words, exactly the groups of students Georgia must raise up if our state is to remain competitive.

There’s more. A 2015 CREDO study found even larger gains for urban charter students. The study found these students receive “the equivalent of roughly 40 days of additional learning per year in math and 28 additional days of learning per year in reading.” Once again, minorities and poor students – and especially poor minorities – received the biggest benefits of being in charter schools. The longer students have been in a charter, the better they perform.

If Georgia is to make the grade in the long run, lifting up all of our students is vital. And that means ensuring they are in the education that best fits their needs. 

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