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Charters with Broad support show only a mixed return on investment

Craig Clough | September 30, 2015

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Broad Foundation statsIn building a case for creating 260 charter schools within in LA Unified eight years at a cost of $490 million, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation has cited “significant” gains by three charter organizations that have received $75 million from the foundation.

But when all factors are considered, there is little conclusive evidence in the report outlining the expansion plans that shows big investments in charters always — or evenly routinely — achieve consistent academic improvements, raising an important question: Just what can Broad and other foundations promise for an investment of nearly half a billion dollars in an expansion effort that would dramatically change the nation’s second-largest school district?

The Broad plan points to three of LA Unified’s largest charter operators that have received Broad largess — Green Dot Public Schools, Alliance College-Ready Public Schools and KIPP Public Charter Schools — and says, “These organizations have turned our investments into significant academic gains for students.”

In some cases, the gains are clear, but in others they are not. One category shows a regression in test scores, and others that demonstrate only marginal gains.

The analysis looks at five years of “proficiency rates” for the organizations’ schools, spanning 2008-09 through 2012-13. Although the document does not explicitly say, it appears the data refers to scores on the old Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) exams, which were discontinued after 2012-13.

It’s also unclear what exactly “proficiency rates” refers to. For purposes of comparison with the new Smarted Balanced tests, the district and the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) combined the top two categories, “met” and” exceeded” standards. In the previous tests, the state broke down results into four levels of achievement, with one called “Proficiency” and a superior level called “Advanced.” But it’s not clear if the Broad report used one category or combined the higher two.

Swati Pandey, the Broad Foundation communications manager, did not respond to an email, seeking an explanation.

Over five years, proficiency rates for Green Dot students in English language arts actually decreased by 3 percent, while math rates at Alliance middle schools improved a total of 1 percent and English rates at the Alliance middle schools improved a total of 5 percent over five years.

Other areas are impressive — a 20 percent gain in English proficiency for KIPP schools over four years and a 13 percent increase in math for Green Dot schools, but the report does not discuss or examine the negative and minimal gains.

The recent Smarter Balanced statewide tests, which this year replaced the STAR exams after two years without any statewide tests, also show impressive results for the three organizations, but they also raised questions. (The Broad report did not include any analysis of the Smarter Balanced tests.)

Key in any analysis is the number of English learners and low-income students — two groups that have proven to be among the most challenging to educate — and these numbers never match up quite evenly between charters and traditional schools.

An analysis by LA School Report shows Alliance schools had 45.4 percent of its students meeting or exceeding the English standards on the Smarter Balanced tests, compared with 33 percent at LA Unified’s schools.

However, Alliance has far fewer English learners. According to its website data, 18.83 percent of its students are English learners, compared with 26 percent for LA Unified. And Alliance students actually scored worse in math, with 23.5 percent meeting or exceeding standards compared with 25 percent for the district. In fairness to Alliance, its schools have 93 percent of its students qualifying for free or reduced price lunch, compared with 77 percent for the district.

KIPP and Green Dot schools fared much better on the Smarter Balanced tests, with the percentage of students meeting or exceeding standards beating LA Unified schools by double digits in both math and English.

Both the CCSA and LA Unified exchanged blows in their analysis of the Smarter Balanced results. The CCSA pointed out that LA Unified’s independent charters bested the district schools, but it was only by 2.5 percent overall in the number that met or exceeded the standards. It then released another analysis that shows if district affiliated charters were removed from the equation the demographics matched up closer and independent charters scored better than LA Unified.

The district countered with a release that showed its magnet schools outperformed charters, but it must be considered that magnets have fewer English learners and low-income students.

Jumping into the mix is the Associated Administrators of the Los Angeles (AALA), which in its recent newsletter criticized the CCSA analysis, saying the “wins” of charters on the tests are diminished “when one considers that the enrollment of traditional schools includes 6% more English learners, who presumably would be at a disadvantage on the SBAC English language arts assessment (though they were apparently not at the same disadvantage on the SBAC math assessment). In addition, the traditional schools have a slightly higher percentage of students who qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program.”

AALA also said that “the analysis presented in the CCSA press release is sophomoric advocacy at the expense of rigor. Serious comparisons may only be made between schools with similar socio-economic status.”

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