School Choice

Here’s How Charter Schools Could Game the Opt-Out Movement

Charter authorizers are getting the hang of using test data to inform high-stakes decisions about which charter schools deserve to be closed. While many charters are very successful, there are still too many with terrible results that should be shuttered at the end of their contracts. Imagine a future in which some charter operators with bad results “encourage” lower-performing children to opt out of standardized assessments so that their test scores look better. The biggest winner from the opt-out debate could be unscrupulous charter school operators that do a terrible job teaching kids.

Closing Sometimes Means Success

Even though the latest national education polls report that most Americans still oppose letting parents remove their children from state tests, there is a growing slice of the public that favors allowing parents to opt out. There are several problems with opting out that are truly bad for kids, including  threats to students’ civil rights . Another problem that scares me is the increased difficulty of closing the worst charter schools. Increasingly, authorizers base their closure decisions on rigorous, yet balanced, performance frameworks that incorporate measures of student growth and proficiency, among many measures. This approach to performance management shows how all students are performing. I think it represents, as I’ve written about previously, one of the  most important uses of state testing data , as well as a powerful lesson to draw from the charter school sector. We need to deal with failing charter schools and that means we should expect authorizers to try to close at least another 200 schools each year when they come up for renewal. The ability to shutter bad charter schools is a part of the  nationwide increase in the success of charter schools in recent years. It would be ironic if the groups encouraging families to opt out realized they could end up helping failing charter schools limp along.

Playing the Board

The vast majority of charters are run by courageous and committed educators. These leaders welcome transparency as part of the bargain that gives them the flexibility they need to pursue their vision of how schools should operate. There are some charter operators, however, that resist accountability and a few have demonstrated their willingness to stretch the truth or hide a problem. I dealt with a charter after it gave more than 85 percent of its students extra time to finish the state test. Traditionally, less than five percent of students received this sort of accommodation. If a charter school operator is facing closure, and they believe test scores will contribute to that closure, a few of them will stoop to gaming the opt-out movement. Schools can get children who are most likely to fail a test to opt out, while encouraging high-performing students to take it . That makes their scores go up, and even if scores only improve slightly, it can take away the political will to close a school with a long track record of failure. They could also get a lot of children to opt out, regardless of their previous performance. They can then characterize those who were not tested as the highest-performing students and argue the remaining children are somehow not representative of how well they are “really” doing. Raising the question of whether the scores are representative may be enough to get a temporary reprieve. State accountability systems have minimum numbers of students in each subgroup that must be tested in order to be publicly reported. Because of this rule, a charter school with a terrible record of teaching English learners or disabled children, for example, may only need to encourage two or three students in each grade to opt out of a test to render the entire population invisible to both the public and their authorizer . They can identify the subgroup in advance, and then figure out how many children need to be pushed to opt out to hide the results of students whose parents they can’t persuade to opt-out. These are just a few of the strategies that a bad charter school operator could use if we stop caring whether children are tested. There are lots of problems with the opt-out movement. There will be many losers if it grows. The biggest winners are likely to be unscrupulous leaders of bad charter schools that don’t teach their students well.  
Alex Medler is a national expert on charter school policy who has worked in education reform since the earliest days of the charter movement.
Alex Medler is Senior Director of the National Charter School Resource Center (NCSRC) with Safal Partners. Medler is a national expert on charter school policy who has worked in education reform since the earliest days of the charter movement. Through Safal Partners, Medler also advises foundations, state education agencies, charter authorizers and other clients in the U.S. and overseas. Prior to ...

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