As charter schools make top 10 test score list, should parents consider switching?

FILE: Second-graders play educational games on iPads at a charter school in Huntington Park. Charter schools ranked among the top based on results from the latest standardized tests.
FILE: Second-graders play educational games on iPads at a charter school in Huntington Park. Charter schools ranked among the top based on results from the latest standardized tests.
Grant Slater/KPCC

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Four charter schools made Los Angeles Unified’s list of top scoring schools based on results released this week from the new Common Core-based standardized tests.

Canyon Charter Elementary School in Santa Monica placed at the top of the list with 91 percent of its students meeting or exceeding grade-level standards for English language arts and math.

Students statewide took the new, computerized tests last spring, given for the first time online to assess how well students are learning the new Common Core concepts emphasizing such skills as problem-solving and critical thinking.

“We’re very pleased to see that charter schools are substantially out-performing the non-charter schools within LAUSD,” said Elizabeth Robitaille, senior vice president of achievement and performance with the California Charter Schools Association.

She said charters biggest advantage over campuses run by school districts is that charters are smaller and that allows them to change teaching approaches faster to meet students’ needs.

The standardized tests measured students’ ability on four levels: exceeded, met, nearly met, or failed to meet the grade-level standards in English and math. The tests were given to students in grade 3 to 8 and grade 11.

Forty-three percent of students in LAUSD charter schools met or exceeded the standards. That’s 1 percent lower than the statewide average, but 12 percent higher than the LAUSD average.

Thirty-two percent of LAUSD charter students met or exceeded standards in math — 1 percent lower than the state average and 10 percent higher than the LAUSD average.

So what should parents consider when weighing charter schools against traditional public schools?

Education researchers believe that looking at the raw scores isn’t sufficient to compare charter schools and non-charter schools.

“The simple fact that they’re in the top list tells us — it can tell us who’s being enrolled, and it might tell us the quality of the education taking place in the school,” said Kevin Welner, education researcher at University of Colorado, Boulder.

But Welner said a deeper analysis takes into account students' socio-economic status and English language skills, for example. So to fairly compare, parents should consider schools with similar student bodies.

National studies that include California find that charter schools perform on average about as well as traditional public schools, he said.

Welner urges parents attracted by the charter schools' test scores to visit a school in person to see if the learning and teaching there fits their child’s needs.

That’s what Inglewood resident John Mora did when looking for a charter school for his two daughters.

“What was most important was the innovative curriculum, the accountability. I knew that charter schools needed to show certain improvements, had to be financially sound, in order not to be closed down,” Mora said.

Not all charters are easy to enter. There are about 40,000 students on charter school waitlists within LAUSD, according to the charter schools association.

Robitaille, from the charter association, said the most recent test scores should send a message to policymakers.

“I believe that the demand is clear and that the performance is clear and that there absolutely should be room made for more growth of charter schools in Los Angeles,” Robitaille said.

Some education observers, including education consultant Stephanie Farland, who consults with school districts on charter school oversight, believe that before that happens, charter schools need to do a better job of showing traditional schools what’s working.

“Why can’t we learn from each other? Why don’t we share best practices? What’s stopping us? If we truly want all kids to succeed, that’s the next step in the charter-district relationship,” said Farland.