Indiana Charter Students Showing Achievement Gains

January 19, 2009

For release Jan. 21 and thereafter (675 words)

Note to editors: The author’s next column, for Feb. 4 release, will focus on Gary’s KIPP LEAD College Prep Charter (mentioned in graf 8).

At first glance, two new studies of Indiana charter schools appear to have reached contradictory conclusions. Not really. A thorough reading of the data makes three things absolutely clear: 1) Students in Indiana charter schools are making more progress than their peers in traditional public schools; 2) they are doing so at less cost to taxpayers; and 3) their parents are quite satisfied with the quality of their children’s education.

Confusion about the findings can be traced to this misleading statement in the first study by the Center for Evaluation & Education Policy at Indiana University: “There is no practical difference between student performance in charter schools and traditional public schools.”

The statement alludes to the fact that passing rates on the ISTEP test are about the same for charter students and their classmates in comparable public school settings. It’s misleading because it fails to take into account that new charter school students are substantially below the average in academic achievement. It’s going to take a few years of quality instruction for charter students to catch up.
As the other study points out, “Students enter the charter schools with a significant academic disadvantage that the charter schools must overcome.” How significant? Only 36 percent of first-year charter students passed both math and language arts portions of ISTEP compared to 52 percent of students in their regular public school districts.
The second study, by the Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning at the University of Indianapolis, drilled more deeply into testing data to compare achievement gains of charter students and their traditional counterparts over a two-year period. This study, which used the Northwest Evaluation Association Measures of Academic Progress, factored in demographic variables such as gender and ethnicity as well as initial level of student achievement. The conclusion was definitive: “Indiana charter school students show significantly more academic growth than does a control group of students in traditional public schools.”
For example: From the fall of 2006 to spring of 2008, charter students showed 22 percent more growth in reading scores than the control group. On the math assessment, the gains were 18 percent greater and on language usage 25 percent greater.
By any standard, the numbers are worth celebrating. Even so, the IU study is being cited by critics as reason to impose a moratorium on creation of new charter schools, which are essentially autonomous public schools with more flexibility in scheduling and curriculum. One such critic is Rep. Vernon G. Smith, D-Gary, who represents a city with one of the worst public school systems in the state and one of the most successful charter schools.
If anything, Smith should be pushing for replication of the successful KIPP LEAD College Prep Charter School of Gary. This is a school that has transformed struggling students into successful learners. In the fall of 2006, only 36 percent of its entering class of fifth graders passed the math portion of ISTEP and 47 percent passed the language arts segment, compared to 52 percent and 56 percent of Gary fifth graders. By the fall of 2008, as seventh graders, the KIPP students’ passing rates were 77 percent for math and 55 percent for language arts, compared to 50 percent and 38 percent respectively for their Gary public school counterparts. Now that’s progress.
When the legislature approved charter schools in 2001, critics said they would “cherry pick” the best students from the traditional public school system. Both studies confirm that is not happening. Charter schools are educating a population that is poorer, more minority and lower achieving than the students in their local districts. And they cost less too, spending an average of $9,136 per student compared to $10,978.
While not all of the state’s 49 charter schools are seeing hoped-for gains, trends are promising. And, as the IU study pointed out, “Parents report that they are highly satisfied with the charter schools their children attend.” For critics now to claim that these schools are of no benefit is to ignore not only test scores but consumer contentment.
(Next: What makes the KIPP academy charter school model so effective?)

Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at


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