School Choice

Ask the Right Questions About Charter School Graduation Rates

A few years ago, the California Charter School Association revealed Golden State charter performance didn’t align to the usual bell-shaped curve, but instead was clustered at the highest- and lowest-performance levels, creating a U-shaped curve. The  2016 Building a Grad Nation Report, released today by GradNation, suggests that the same is true for charter graduation rates nationally:
Charter schools, shown to have mixed performance outcomes across states, also had mixed results in terms of graduation rates, with more than 3 in 10 charter schools reporting graduation rates of 67 percent or less and 44 percent with graduation rates of 85 percent and above. This suggests that more than any other school type, charter high schools tend to either do very well or very poorly in graduating their students.
So first, a big high-five to all those charter high schools outperforming the national grad rate! But before taking the axe to those low-grad laggards over at the left side of the U-curve, let’s pause a moment to consider some of the annoying limitations in this data. For starters, charter high schools tend to be located in urban areas. So when the report makes an invidious comparison between the 7 percent national rate of low-grad district schools versus a rate of 30 percent for charters, the next question has to be: How do those charters compare to the schools their students would actually have attended? Alas, we only get state-level numbers. The report concedes that there’s a lot of overlap in three groups of schools—charter, alternative and virtual—that collectively make up for about half of all low-graduation rate high schools and tries to present some disaggregated stats. Federal data on “alternative schools” is notoriously bad and almost certainly undercounts the number of charters serving highly at-risk populations. One table in the report says D.C. has no “alternative” charter high schools, which will come as a surprise to kids at Next Step and Maya Angelou. A four-year graduation rate is largely irrelevant to a charter (or any) high school that seeks out highly-mobile students and former dropouts, especially when their program is based on mastery of subject matter rather than seat time. (To its credit, Grad Nation calls for routine reporting of five- and six-year graduation cohorts for all schools. That’s allowed under Every Student Succeeds Act and should quickly become the norm.) These gaps in data and understanding have been going on too long. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers has been working in the “alternative accountability” vineyard since 2012, and it’s disconcerting that four years later, we’re still seeing global comparisons with too little acknowledgement of differences in school mission and population. All that said…Let’s sharpen that axe. Once we’ve sorted through all these apples and oranges, there is still a set of charter high schools that are not performing at acceptable levels. We’ve grown impatient with virtual schools that explain low achievement by claiming that their students are exceptional—and then can’t produce the evidence. Charter schools need to do their job. Those that set out to offer four years of college- and career-ready education for a largely mainstream student body have no business letting one-third of them fail to graduate—and those that do should face stiff questioning at renewal time.
Nelson Smith
Nelson Smith is senior advisor to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. He served as the first president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools; executive director of the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board; vice president for Education and Workforce Development at the New York City Partnership; and director of programs for the Improvement of ...

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