Charters Close the Achievement Gap: NYC Charters Continue to Lead

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On Wednesday, the New York State Education Department released results for the 2017-18 grades 3-8 English Language Arts (ELA) and math assessments. As in 2015-16, when the state implemented new testing procedures that differed from past years’ Common Core assessments, these results are not directly comparable to those from the year prior. Across New York City, both charter and traditional district schools made improvements in ELA and math. However, following last year’s trends – and patterns that have persisted for more than a decade – New York City charter schools outperformed and outgained traditional district schools in both ELA and math:

  • Charter ELA proficiency rates increased 9.1 percentage points, from 48.2% to 57.3%, compared to district growth of 6.1 percentage points, from 40.6% to 46.7%. 
  • Charter math proficiency rates increased 7.8 percentage points, from 51.7% to 59.5%, compared to district growth of 4.9 percentage points, from 37.8% to 42.7%.

Collectively, NYC charter students continued to outperform their peers across the state:

While, as noted, these results are not directly comparable with prior years , it is worth noting that when the first Common Core assessments were administered in 2013, NYC charter schools lagged behind the ELA performance of both the district and schools in the rest of the state (exclusive of  upstate charter schools): 25.0% vs. 26.5% vs. 34.1%, respectively. Over the past five years, NYC charter schools have not only eliminated that deficit, but are now outperforming the district by 10.6 percentage points, and the rest of the state by 14.4 percentage points.

Also of note, this is the first year that Latino charter students in NYC outperformed white students statewide.

One overall trend worth noting as well is that when common core assessments were first introduced New York City charter schools proficiency rates in math were much higher than those in English Language Arts (34.9% in math to 25% in ELA for a gap of 9.9 percentage points).  This subject proficiency rate differential was also evident under the non-common core testing regime.  Both in earlier years and in 2013 (and even more recently) this gap lead to much speculation about the cause, including among skeptics, the often levied accusation that this demonstrated that charter schools were using excessive test preparation at the cost of academic preparation (though it was never clear why math, especially when linked to common core standards, was so amenable to test prep).  Regardless of the cause, in more recent administrations, that gap has narrowed by two thirds shrinking to 2.2 percentage points (compared to a gap of 3.5 in 2017).  As literacy is, of the two subjects, one that is likely more predictive of college readiness, this is good news and demonstrates, at the very least, the ability of the sector to make quick adjustments where needed. 
It also highlights a difference in pattern with the district.  In 2013, the gap between ELA and math proficiency rates was small in traditional district schools with ELA proficiency rates only slightly smaller than math rates (26.5% to 29.7% or +3.2 percentage points).  That trend has essentially remained unchanged (46.7% proficiency for ELA and 42.7% for math or +4 percentage points) with of course proficiency rates for both ELA and math trailing charter school proficiency rates).

Charter students continue to lead the way relative to their district peers in neighborhoods, including Harlem and the South Bronx, where district schools have historically struggled academically. In Harlem (including schools in CSDs 4 and 5), for example, where charter schools outperformed district schools 62.5% vs. 29.4% in math, charter schools constituted 14 of the top 20 schools:

In the South Bronx, meanwhile, charter school proficiency rates in 2018 are more than double in math (58.4% vs 28.1%) and double in ELA (60% vs 32.5%). And while we note elsewhere that there is tremendous variability among charter schools in proficiency rates, it is striking that in CSDs 8 and 9, every one of the 14 charter schools has proficiency rates greater than either CSD in both ELA and math. 

Given these and other data points that can be gleaned from the interactive slides, it is no surprise or coincidence that the Charter Center has seen especially high demand for charter schools in this neighborhood – as well as in Harlem and Central Brooklyn – through its centralized application process (a trend also evidenced with charter applications generally).

What is most striking, given historic achievement gaps, is that Black and Latino students in NYC charter schools continue to perform well, and widen the gap with their district peers:

In this regard, the percentage of Black and Latino students who achieved a Level 4 on the state tests, indicating advanced proficient, is also striking.  In math, Black students in charter schools were at that level at rates almost four times that of their counterparts in district schools.  (And while we agree that a test score is not the full measure of any child, the psychological boost that these students get from their hard-won achievement is deeply meaningful.)

Among special student populations, it remains a good news/bad news story; success has been elusive, though there are signs of progress.  29.3% of students with disabilities are reaching proficiency in ELA, while 34.1% are doing so in math in New York City’s charter schools. Overall, this subgroup continues to see gains, +9.8 percentage points in ELA and +7.5 percentage points in math. These results are far better than the district has achieved. 

English language learners’ absolute proficiency rates are far below the general population as well, both in the charter sector and in district schools.  Still, charter schools are outperforming the district.  Moreover, in one very hopeful sign, charter school ELL students saw among the largest gains from 2017 to 2018 (up +8.19 percentage points in ELA for total proficiency of 22.1%, and +9.54 percentage points in math for total proficiency of 33.6%).  This is good news, but the bottom line that charter leaders understand, is that we must continue to target supports and interventions to help students with the most needs.

As has been true in past years, the opt-out movement has had little impact across NYC. In district schools, just 3.6% and 4.1% of students opted out of the ELA and math assessments, respectively. Among charter students, these figures are even lower: 1% and 0.9% in ELA and math, respectively. In fact, the proportion of students opting out of the state assessments declined 1 percentage point to 18%. We will continue to monitor opt-out trends, and it may be that the movement has simply reached its peak.

As would be expected from a reform that is essentially centered on governance, accountability, parent choice and, most importantly, autonomy for schools to make decisions about pedagogy, curriculum and organization, the results this year (as in prior years) show tremendous variability in proficiency rates.  This variability is not random.  Most obvious (and again consistent with long-term trends), charter schools that are affiliated with networks outperformed charter schools that are independent.  In ELA, the proficiency rates are 62.6% vs. 50.5%, respectively, and in math 67.2% vs. 49.2%, respectively. 

Of course there is variability within these sub-sectors.  There are a number of independent charter schools with high rates of proficiency just as there are a number of networks that lag both district proficiency rates and sector averages.  But that said, the trend of higher performance among CMOs is clearly evident – the reasons for it are less obvious.  On the one hand, independent schools on average are more likely to be in private space than their CMO counterparts and less likely, if in private space, to be able to access rental assistance due to when they were founded, putting them at a substantial funding disadvantage.  While such resource differentials may play some role, it seems doubtful that this can explain the phenomenon in its entirety.  CMOs enjoy advantages of scale and specialization that are likely very large contributing factors.  There may be demographic factors as well. These data points suggest rich avenues for further study. 

In this regard, and as noted, there is large variability in CMO rates of proficiency.  However, the trend line that simply cannot be ignored and that even a quick glance at the scatter plots or rankings highlight is that Success Academies’ performance continues to be at rates not ever seen in schools serving large numbers of low income, minority students.  Success has self-reported that students in its self-contained classes exhibited unusually high rates of proficiency.  Further study of Success’s curriculum, pedagogy and organizational structure are not just warranted, but should be mandatory for charter and district leadership.  This is particularly true, as we noted, when a network like Success is educating far more students than many large districts. 

Finally, direct comparisons between the charter sector and New York City’s traditional public schools, using only these test scores in order to make definitive statements about the quality of either (relative or absolute), is difficult if not impossible.  There are significant demographic differences between the city’s charter school sector and its district schools. In 2017-18, charters enrolled more Black and Latino students (90.1% vs. 63.9%), and those from economically disadvantaged families (78.3% vs. 74.3%), while enrolling far fewer white students (most of whom are affluent). On the other hand, charters enroll slightly fewer students with disabilities (16.9% vs. 20.4%) and significantly fewer English language learners (6.9% vs. 14.8%). (Of course, there are likely differences in each sector of the students who make up each of these groups).  In addition, there are very different enrollment structures.  Charters enroll students through a random selection process; the district, while having schools with a wide range of school enrollment structures (including many that are highly selective), by law must provide a seat for all students who reside within New York City. That is a difficult mandate to fulfill.  Finally, there is the question of scale.  Working at a smaller scale is probably an advantage that charter schools enjoy; on the other hand, some CMOs are larger than many districts and outperform those districts three or five times over as we have noted above. 

But with all that said, and given the urgent need for more good schools for students, this data set provides one very important basis for continuing to expand the charter sector and making sure that charter schools enjoy parity of resource streams, whether that be in funding or in access to public facilities.  It is also true that anyone who simply ignores these results and dismisses them without further study is putting their ideology over the mission of improving results for students. A great public school is not just the best, but in many cases the only avenue by which they will be able to fully participate in this city’s and nation’s civic and economic life.