Charter school achievement gap

Proponents for opening more charter schools in Massachusetts–primarily to serve urban students–use the fake facade of increased MCAS scores as justification.  State Senator Barry Finegold and former Akamai CEO Paul Sagan repeat this mantra in a editorial  (link may require a Globe account).

Finegold and Sagan tout what looks to be a very impressive factoid to argue for lifting the charter school cap: thirteen charter schools had the highest MCAS scores in the state last year, outperforming affluent public schools.

But, if you scratch the surface of this argument, the veneer of teaching to the MCAS test quickly peels away to reveal, at best, a flawed educational approach or, at worst, a corrupt system.

If charter schools truly provide a “solid educational foundation” as Finegold and Sagan argue, then these schools would consistently exhibit this “solid” performance using metrics other than MCAS exams.  They do not.

For example, how well did the twelve charter schools who scored a perfect 100 on the 2012 10th grade English MCAS exam perform on the SAT exams in 2012Not well at all.

English MCAS Rank      Math MCAS Rank      Overall SAT Rank
Advanced Math and Science Academy Charter, Marlborough         1         1         6
Berkshire Arts & Technology Charter, Adams         1         1         117
Community Charter School of Cambridge         1         1         256
MATCH Charter, Boston         1         1         262
Foxborough Regional Charter         1         13         118
Mystic Valley Regional Charter, Malden         1         24         82
Prospect Hill Academy Charter, Somerville         1         35         224
Academy of the Pacific Rim Charter, Hyde Park         1         64         161
Francis W Parker Charter, Devens         1         68         36
Global Learning Charter, New Bedford         1         68         239
Four Rivers Charter, Greenfield         1         116         41
South Shore Charter, Hull         1         208         107


Conversely, how well did the affluent suburban schools who scored well on the MCAS exams, perform on the SAT exams?  Their solid MCAS performances were mirrored with solid SAT rankings as well.

English MCAS Rank      Math MCAS Rank      Overall SAT Rank     
Dover-Sherborn Regional         1         6         8
Harvard Public Schools         1         6         10
Winchester Public Schools         1         6         11
Northborough-Southborough Regional         1         13         24
Duxbury Public Schools         17         12         45
Lincoln-Sudbury Regional         17         13         18
Holliston Public Schools         17         13         38
Medway Public School         17         13         47
Lexington Public Schools         17         24         4
Belmont Public Schools         17         24         13
Groton-Dunstable Regional         17         24         65
Longmeadow Public Schools         17         44         51
Lunenburg Public Schools         17         77         75
Medfield High School         36         13         20
Ashland Hight School         36         13         50
Cohasset Public Schools         56         6         42
Manchester Essex Regional         56         13         27


(The MCAS rankings bear explaining.  Sixteen schools scored a perfect 100 on the 10th Grade English MCAS exam and all were ranked #1, nine schools with the 2nd highest MCAS scores were all ranked 17th and schools with the third highest MCAS scores were ranked 26th).

The contrast in overall MCAS/SAT performance between charter schools and the affluent schools Finegold and Kagan compare the charters to, are strikingly inconsistent.  While one can not draw conclusions based on the preliminary data above, it certainly raises questions that the educational community must answer before there is a rush to create more MCAS factories that are not preparing students for college and other life-challenges.

Charter school advocates point to the achievement gap between urban and suburban schools.  This is a real gap, a gap that is being closed, but not fast enough.  But the MCAS / SAT gap that exists between “successful” charter schools and suburban schools indicates that charter schools will maintain this achievement gap: creating a system where the poor-urban students are taught to pass an MCAS test and affluent-suburban students receive a well-rounded education that prepares them for the challenges of a 21st century economy.

As Sen. Finegold and Mr. Sagan write in the first sentence of their oped, “A child’s destiny should not be determined by her zip code”.


13 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. Also

    Four of the ten districts with the greatest percentage of students who received the lowest possible score on the MCAS were charters. Even with funding and regulatory breaks, many charters can’t do better than their surrounding community. With the support and resources of Gloucester, how do you fail so badly? Expect a Globe investigation on this (just kidding, we all know the Globe doesn’t investigate lucrative advertising sources).

    1. Holyoke
    2. Springfield*
    3. Gloucester Community Arts Charter**
    4. Lawrence
    5. Spirit of Knowledge Charter
    6. Southbridge
    7. Boston
    8.New Leadership Charter
    9. Brockton
    10. Dorchester Collegiate Academy Charter

    * You know, the one DESE approved over parental objection to please — and I quote from a department email — “moderate allies such as the Boston Globe and the Boston Foundation”
    ** Springfield was in trouble, so the state came in and “fixed” it. Result: 2nd lowest percentage.

    sabutai   @   Thu 2 May 6:51 PM
  2. What is the purpose of an education?

    This important analysis makes me wonder: what is the purpose of American public education? Is it to score well on a single test? Two tests? Is it to develop informed, thoughtful, critical thinkers who can lead fulfilling lives and contribute to a democratic society?
    Or do we have two purposes; one (do well on MCAS tests) for poor urban kids and another (fulfilling lives, etc.) for affluent kids, primarily in suburbs? It seems that folks like Finegold and Sagan are advocating for the two-track theory, because if students who perform well on the MCAS can’t be successful in other arenas, they are not well-edcated by most people’s definition. It could be argued that SAT scores are not an appropriate measure, either, but college completion rates have been questionable for Boston’s charter schools, too.
    Whatever the purpose, I hope that it is shared for all students, and that schools educate ALL students who enter their doors to high levels.

    • A question that isn't asked often enough

      I’ll admit I often fall victim to the other side’s framing, because even when they redefine education as succeeding at standardized tests, their test-punish-privatize-fire agenda fails.

      If we follow a true definition — readying children to be global citizens in the 21st century, it isn’t even close. I need to remember that more — thanks, eberg.

      sabutai   @   Thu 2 May 10:38 PM
    • Both for all?

      ALL students need to show they know basic facts and have basic skills IN ORDER TO live fulfilling lives with gainful employment, ability to contribute to society, etc. I’m getting tired of the framing that testing and education are mutually exclusive; the former is a means to the latter. You can’t be a critical thinker if you don’t know the basics. (See also Tea Party, 21st century version)

      • Also see: forced busing

        In the Boston metropolitan area, Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts found a recurring pattern of racial discrimination in the operation of the Boston public schools in a 1974 ruling.

        Ironically, the BPS eliminated the last vestiges of forced busing just a couple of months ago.

        Also, also see: Separate but equal
        It looks to me like the charter school movement is an attempt to set up another version of Separate But Equal. It pretends to ignore race, but also gives up on the “equal” part. None of that makes it OK.

        • To be clear I'm opposed to charters at least in part for the reason you suggest.

          I was replying to eberg’s comment that seemed to be contrasting tests with actual education.

  3. meh

    Finegold and Sagan tout what looks to be a very impressive factoid to argue for lifting the charter school cap: thirteen charter schools had the highest MCAS scores in the state last year, outperforming affluent public schools.

    For example, how well did the twelve charter schools who scored a perfect 100 on the 2012 10th grade English MCAS exam perform on the SAT exams in 2012? Not well at all.

    The introduction of charter schools and the adoption of MCAS were spawned in the very same legislation: the “Education Reform Act of 1993″. One could have, if one were so inclined, predicted this exact outcome in 1993. Why are you surprised?

    Twenty years spent possibly teaching to the test is truly comparable to twenty plus years possibly teaching to the other test; but this is not a criticism of charter schools, this is a criticism of public education in general. If you can guarantee that killing charter schools will help stop traditional district schools from teaching to either of the tests then I’ll go strangle it right now… Otherwise…

  4. Clarify the MCAS debate

    I suspect I am the only party of this conversation, and maybe the only BMG member, who actually had to take this test to graduate from high school. At a decent, highly diverse, inner city high school like CRLS we took over a month off from real education to teach to and take these tests. History, Foreign Language and Science teachers had to become English and Math teachers for the month. It was incredibly disruptive. For academically successful students like myself it was neither challenging nor enriching but a giant waste of time, for the students in the middle they lost a month they may have needed to bone up on the subjects they were struggling in, and the students at the bottom either zoned out or lived in complete fear the entire month. Everyone lost, students and teachers alike.

    MCAS is useful as an assessment tool, but I strongly feel that high stakes testing are weakening our curriculum for the lowest common denominator.

    • Another example of the wrong way to go about it.

      Your history, foreign language, and science teachers had absolutely no business pretending to be English and Math teachers for a month. There is a reason teachers are licensed separately by subject area at the secondary level. No wonder MCAS gets so much flak of this is how the test is being addressed. Don’t the teachers of other subjects have better things to do, like prepare you for the exams in THOSE subjects for when the time comes? We need to stop living in fear of the MCAS. Students might even do BETTER on it if they weren’t getting the vibe from teachers and administrators coming across as nervous nellies about it and that the whole world has to stop for it.

      • Pretty clear

        to me at this point nobody in education policy here cares about foreign languages and they don’t care much about history. I’m sure that’s partially because there are no MCAS or other tests to “measure” anything in those subjects, short of AP exams. But I believe they both are important to being good citizens in the 21st century.

        Science, especially in Massachusetts, is a very important field of study. Giving it short shrift really is short-sighted.

    • I thought

      something that extreme only happened on the The Wire until my wife (foreign language teacher at a charter) herself had to devote some days (not a month) to teaching MCAS subjects. Wow.

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