Major Gains Seen in Achievement of Charter School Children in 2015-16 Test Scores

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By Michael Pih

In what can be described as yet another transition year for New York State testing, NYC charter schools made significant gains, and outperformed their district counterparts in both ELA and Math. As the sector has done for the past three years, math proficiency continues to exceed district averages—this year by +12.3 percentage points (48.7% vs. 36.4%). Most encouraging is the fact that charters outperformed the district in ELA for the first time since the transition to the Common Core assessments in the 2012-13 school year (43.0% vs. 38.0%).

As Commissioner Elia noted in the state’s press release announcing the results, several important changes were made to this year’s test, including increased teacher involvement in the test development process, a shortening of the tests, and allowing students extra time. Despite these changes, this year’s tests remained similarly rigorous, and observing year-to-year gains remains instructive. Between 2014-15 and 2015-16, NYC charter students made the largest gains in both Math and ELA across the state: proficiency among NYC charter students increased +4.5 and +13.7 percentage points in math and ELA, respectively, compared to +1.0 and +6.6 points for the state, and +1.2 and +7.6 points for NYC district peers.

African-American and Hispanic charter students continue to outperform their district peers. This is particular notable, because charter schools enroll a significant number of students of color (over 90% in 2014-15). In math, African-American charter students are more than twice as likely to be proficient than their district peers (48.8% vs. 20.0%), and Hispanic students are nearly twice as likely to be proficient (46.9% vs. 24.4%). These trends hold true even when the data are disaggregated by neighborhoods. In Central Brooklyn, Harlem, and the South Bronx, where many charter schools are concentrated, and continue to grow, charter performance far exceeds that of the district. In the South Bronx alone, 14 of the top 20 schools in math proficiency were charters.

Not all student subgroups, however, are performing at high levels of proficiency. Among the most notable are students with disabilities and English language learners. Though there has been some improvement, these students continue to lag behind their peers and the sector averages. In ELA, fewer than 8% of English language learners were proficient on this year’s tests. This trend is certainly not unique to charter schools—less than 5% of ELLs in the district were proficient in ELA—the sector must continue to provide the supports and programming for our students with the most needs. The dramatic overall improvements the sector has made the past few years offers me hope that the its school leaders will take every approach to realize these goals.

Despite sometimes being the loudest voices in the room, the opt-out movement appears to have had a marginal impact here in the city especially in comparison to some school districts across the state. In the district, just 2.4% of students in ELA, and 2.7% of students in math opted out, or approximately 10,000 students of the 400,000 who were test eligible. In NYC charter schools, less than 1% of test-eligible students opted out (0.5% in ELA, and 0.7% in math, or roughly 300 students).

This year’s test results reinforce the fact that the sector continues to be a strong option for our city’s families. While school leaders and educators across the city must continue to find ways to improve achievement for all students, including students with disabilities and English language learners, we should all take the time to reflect on the tremendous gains the sector continues to make.