And now it’s time for today’s high-stakes test question: which of the following is better at putting students on a path to college? A. Our failing public schools B. The college prep academies that are proliferating in cities across the Commonwealth and often feature “college prep” in their very names?
If you answered “B,” you might be surprised by this snapshot of SAT scores that appeared in the Boston Globe over the weekend. Urban college prep charters, including the likes of City on a Hill, Codman Academy, MATCH and New Leadership, ranked at the very bottom of the list, often far below the ostensibly failing districts that necessitated their creation in the first place. What gives? It turns out that the martial-arts style MCAS drilling that reigns supreme at so many urban charters may not be the ideal way to prepare kids for college.
The Globe rankings shouldn’t come as a shock. Charters and their backers, so vociferous on the topic of MCAS outstandingness, grow quiet when it comes to much less rosy predictors of college success (like AP and SAT scores). A recent report by the Boston Foundation on soaring college enrollment and graduation rates among Boston Public Schools students didn’t include charter data at all. Which seems kind of odd given that the expansion of charters is tops on the agenda of Boston Foundation chief Paul Grogan. Meanwhile, Match Education was scheduled to release a triumphant report last year, humbly described as Match to College: The First Decade. But here we are, already into the next decade, and no triumphant report has appeared.
To be fair, there were also charters that fared at or near the top of the Globe’s rankings—but they are the suburban charters. Interestingly, the handful of urban college prep charters that outperformed their sending districts (SABIS® in Springfield and Boston Collegiate) have far higher percentages of white students, 30% and 55% respectively, than their home districts, indicating that integration might be a worthy goal after all. The current campaign to lift the cap on charter excellence has nothing to do with expanding suburban charters though. Nor does it have anything to say about integration. When cap lifters refer to the need for more high quality schools in urban districts they are referring to exactly the kind of urban college prep academies that fare so poorly on the SAT.
The irony is that opening more of these schools may actually reduce the number of low-income minority youth who make it to college. Take the example of New Bedford where City on a Hill is scheduled to open a college prep high school in 2014. In a district with 12,600 kids, City on a Hill projects that 35 of its students will make it to senior year. The cost to the New Bedford Public Schools, whose students outperform City on a Hill’s on the SAT, will be $15 million. In a climate of budget cuts and likely school closings, “extra” programs that help kids in places like New Bedford get to college and stay there are likely to be the first to go. (Note: the Mayor of New Bedford, Jonathan Mitchell, makes a similar case in this scathing letter to the state’s Commissioner of Education, Mitchell Chester).
Is there any way that Success Boston, the program credited with boosting college attendance and completion in the Hub to record levels, can survive the coming onslaught of “high performing” college prep charters? I’m guessing not. But I suppose that’s the price we have to pay when we’re ensuring “real opportunity for our highest needs students.”
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