Charters Widen the Gap: NYC Charters Continue to Lead

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On Tuesday, the New York State Education Department released results for the 2016-17 grades 3-8 English Language Arts (ELA) and math assessments. Unlike 2015-16, when the state implemented new testing procedures that differed from past years’ Common Core assessments, the 2016-17 results are 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, New York City charter schools outperformed and outgained traditional district schools in both ELA and math.

  • Charter ELA proficiency rates increased 5.2 percentage points from 43.0% to 48.2% compared to district growth of 2.6 percentage points from 38.0% to 40.6%.
  • Charter math proficiency rates increased 3.0 percentage points from 48.7% to 51.7% compared to district growth of 1.3 percentage points from 36.5% to 37.8%.

NOTE: Before we go further, in order to provide some context, it is important to consider the overall demographics between NYC charter and traditional district schools. In 2016-17, charters enrolled more Black and Hispanic students (91.3% vs. 64.0%), and those from economically disadvantaged families (76.3% vs. 68.6%). Further, charters enroll slightly fewer students with disabilities (16.9% vs. 18.2%), and significantly fewer English language learners (6.8% vs. 13.8%).  In addition, 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. 

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

While, as noted, these results are not directly comparable with prior years (other than last year), it is worth noting that when the first Common Core assessments were given in 2013, NYC charter schools’ ELA performance lagged behind both NYC and schools in the rest of the state (excluding upstate charters): 25.0% vs. 26.5% vs. 34.1%. Over the past five years, NYC charters have eliminated that deficit and are now outperforming the district by 7.6 percentage points and the rest of the state by 9.7 percentage points.

Another overall trend also worth noting is the fact that when common core assessments were first introduced, as indicated above, NYC charter schools’ proficiency rates in math were much higher than those in ELA (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.  There has been much speculation about the cause of this gap. The most frequent accusation levied by skeptics was 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 3.5 percentage points.  As literacy is, of the two subjects, considered the most predictive of college readiness, this is good news and demonstrates, at the very least, the ability of the charter sector to make quick and necessary adjustments to their curriculum and pedagogy. 

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 (37.8% proficiency for ELA and 40.6% for math or +2.8 percentage points.

In neighborhoods with high numbers of charter schools, including Harlem and the South Bronx, charter students continue to lead the way relative to their district peers. In Harlem (including schools in CSDs 4 & 5), for example, where charter schools outperformed district schools 56.4% vs. 23.7% in math, charter schools constituted 14 of the top 20 schools:

In the South Bronx, meanwhile, charter school proficiency rates in 2017 are double the ELA rates of the district and more than double the district rates in math. 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 that the Charter Center has seen applications for charters in these communities – via the Common Online Charter Application – continue to increase.

What is most striking, perhaps, is that Black and Hispanic students in NYC charter schools continue to perform well, and widen the gap with their district peers:

Among special student populations, it remains a good news/bad news story with success more elusive, though there are signs of progress.  Only 19.5% of students with disabilities in NYC charter schools are reaching proficiency in ELA, while 26.7% are doing so in math. However there were gains this year – continuing a trend – for students with disabilities (+3.4 points in ELA and +2.6 points in math for students receiving special education services).  These results are far better than the district has achieved. 

In both district and charter schools, absolute proficiency rates for ELLs also fall far below the general population.  Here, too, though, charter schools are outperforming the district.  Moreover, in one very hopeful sign, charter school ELL students saw among the largest gains this past year of any subgroup anywhere in the state (up +6.2 percentage points in ELA for total proficiency of 13.9% and +1.2 points in math for total proficiency of 24.1%).  This is good news, but the bottom line 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 2.9% and 3.4% of students opted out of the ELA and math assessments, respectively. Among charter students, these figures are even lower: 0.5% and 0.6% in ELA and math, respectively. In fact, the proportion of students opting out of the state assessments declined two percentage points to 19%. 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 group of autonomous organizations, charter school 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 53.7% vs. 37.7%, respectively, and in math 60.1% vs. 35.6%, respectively. 

Of course, there is variability even within the network-affiliated and independent 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.  Access to resources may play some role, though it seems doubtful that this can explain the phenomenon in its entirety.  Networks enjoy advantages of scale and specialization that are likely very large contributing factors. Neighborhood demographics may factor in as well. These data points suggest rich avenues for further study. 

One trend that simply cannot be ignored, and that even a quick glance at the scatter plots or rankings highlights, is that Success Academies’ continues to perform at rates never seen before 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. 

Finally, as we always note, the state test scores are the beginning of inquiry not the definitive story. Charter and district comparisons are worthwhile and important, but they cannot tell us why there are these differences and why they are so large. Any comparison must take account of differences in demographics and enrollment structures (including the fact that the district has far greater numbers of demographic groups who are historically high performing, while also enrolling more children who are or have recently experienced homelessness or are English Language Learners).  We encourage the study of all of these variables. 

But with all that said, and given the urgent need for more high quality schools  in NYC, this data set provides one very important basis for continuing to expand the charter sector and making sure that charter schools achieve resource parity, whether that be funding or access to public facilities. 

Charter sector leaders, educators, staff, parents and students made these impressive results possible.  They are the product of an incredible amount of hard work and caring.  We will continue our advocacy to achieve a political and policy eco-system that allows the sector to continue its work.