- The Washington Times - Monday, July 20, 2009

Preliminary data compiled by the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education show that the test scores of students in D.C. public-charter middle and high schools increased significantly in the last academic year. Student proficiency in math increased 9 percent, and reading proficiency rose 7 percent. This compares to increases in math proficiency of 4 percent and reading proficiency of 2 percent in the city-run middle and high schools.

Overall, math proficiency among secondary-school students in the District’s public charter schools is 57 percent (compared with 40 percent in the noncharter public schools) and for reading 53 percent (41 percent in the city-run schools).

At the elementary school level, the charter schools’ gains were more modest than those of the city-run public schools, overseen by Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, who was appointed two years ago by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty.

Students at city-run public schools increased their reading proficiency 4 points and their math proficiency 8 points to reach 49 percent in both. Charter elementary schools’ reading proficiency increased 1 percent in math and one-half of a percent in reading to reach 42 percent in math and 43 percent in reading. This reverses last year’s results when charter elementary schools were slightly ahead of the city-run schools in student proficiency.

Charter advocates highlighted the strong increases in proficiency at the secondary level.

“The significant gains of D.C. public-charter middle and high school students indicates that the longer children stay in public charter schools, the better they do,” said Robert Cane, executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools. This result underscored findings from a recent Stanford University study, Mr. Cane said.

Addressing the charter elementary school results, charter advocates pointed out the somewhat different demographics of the District’s public charter schools compared to their city-run counterparts.

“Charters are concentrated in underserved District communities, and the vast majority are located in high-poverty neighborhoods,” said Mr. Cane. “Many city-run elementary schools are in the District’s high-income Ward 3, but no charters are located there.”

The D.C. Public Charter School Board, the charters’ regulatory body, was impressed with the improvement in secondary school test scores.

“It’s very encouraging to see such substantial gains in the secondary school population, which is the most difficult to bring to proficiency across the country,” said board Chairman Tom Nida. The board is responsible for closing public charter schools in the District that it deems to be underperforming academically.

Mrs. Rhee also praised the performance of the secondary charter schools at a press conference held with the mayor at Drew Elementary School in Ward 7, although she has no responsibilities for charters. The mayor chose the school as the site for their announcement of the preliminary test scores for the regular public schools, following an 18-point increase in reading and a 28-point increase in math, raising proficiency to 31 percent and 34 percent, respectively.

One area of controversy in comparing averages for the District’s public charter schools with their traditional public school counterparts concerns academic selection. D.C. public charter schools are nonselective by law, but a number of noncharter public schools are academically selective, including Banneker High School, School Without Walls and McKinley Technology High School.

Charter advocates believe that their inclusion in the average of the school system schools distorts the city-run average.

The correct data comparison is among all schools that do not select which students they accept, said Mr. Cane. “Among the District’s nonselective secondary schools, African-American students and students from low-income families are nearly twice as likely to be proficient in reading and math as their peers in the city-run schools,” he said. Low-income students are defined by the U.S. Department of Education as those qualifying for free or reduced-price school lunch.

Charter analysts nationally are impressed with the D.C. success.

“Charter schools authorized by the Public Charter School Board have high-school graduation rates higher than the U.S. average - which includes the nation’s wealthy and rural counties - and 24 percent higher than DCPS’ nonselective high schools,” said Nelson Smith, president of the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, “and 85 percent of D.C. public charter schools’ high school-age students are accepted to college.”

Mark Lerner is a member of the board of Washington Latin Public Charter School.

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