To get an idea about how difficult it can be to interpret test score data when it comes to charter schools, consider Lafayette Preparatory Academy, just west of downtown.
When the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released scores last week from the Missouri Assessment Program (MAP) tests that were taken in the spring, numbers from Lafayette stood out. The percentages of students at the downtown west charter school who scored in the proficient or advanced categories were 66.7 in English and 40.0 in math – significantly above the scores for St. Louis Public Schools.
But a closer look shows that only 15 third-graders at Lafayette took the tests. That takes nothing away from the students’ performance, but it puts the figures into a different context, compared with the thousands of students in the city system.
To muddle matters further, state education officials stress that you can’t fairly compare this year’s MAP scores to last year’s, because this year brought a different test based on different standards.
The result is another layer of complexity that reinforces how bare numbers can be both simple and simplistic when it comes to figuring out which schools may be performing well and may be the best fit for your child.
“I think it’s important to remember that the numbers of tests taken in any given school, the number of students for which that school is accountable, can vary quite a lot,” said Chris Neale, an assistant commissioner for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
He said that anyone who wants to use test scores for making decisions about where to send their children needs to take more time and use more care.
“We enroll our children, not whole groups of children. And I think it’s just worthwhile to be very careful in how you study those, and to examine the philosophy of the school where you are considering enrolling your child to see if that fits with your own personal philosophy,” Neale said.
Doug Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association said comparing scores from more than 10,000 students who attend the 24 charters schools operating in St. Louis to the scores of the city public school system can be one way to look at things. But he too urges a broader lens.
“What we look at is how are the schools doing in moving towards meeting the state average or surpassing the state average,” he said. “We look at how they did last year, the year before, and how they’re doing now….
“What we want, and what our schools are always striving to do, is ensuring that they’re preparing these students to be competitive with the rest of the world. So a big step in that is making sure that they are as well prepared as other students in the state of Missouri, and they’re performing and moving toward what is the state average, which is a good indicator.”
Susan Marino, who is head of school at Lafayette, is proud of the way her third graders scored on last spring’s test, but she acknowledges there is room to grow. And she said she wants to make sure that the MAP test isn’t the sole benchmark in that effort.
“We actually put a lot of time and energy and focus on internal assessments and measures that we’re utilizing within the school because it’s not just test scores and how you perform on a test. It’s how the kids grow in other ways," Marino said.
“There’s a lot more to their growth than what they can show on a standardized test. Can they complete performance tasks, actually taking knowledge and employing it in a problem-solving situation, versus answering questions on an objective-based test?”
New choices, new considerations
Giving parents a public, tuition-free option to the school systems in St. Louis and Kansas City was the impetus behind passage of charter school legislation in Missouri in 1998. Since then, the law has been expanded in 2012 to broaden the areas where charters may open as well as what institutions can sponsor them. It also created a statewide charter school commission to oversee the expansion.
Unlike traditional school districts, which operate under direction of DESE and the state board of education, charters are independent. They are answerable to their sponsors, which are, in turn, monitored by state school officials. Courts have ruled that the state cannot shut down a charter school; only a sponsor can.
Thaman said that arrangement is part of the guiding principle behind charters, that they gain autonomy in exchange for promising accountability.
“If a charter school is not performing adequately over a period of time, and they’re underperforming other schools in the area, then the sponsor has that obligation to transform that school or close that school, for that school to be dealt with," he said.
Thaman pointed to the closure of the struggling Imagine charter schools in the spring of 2012 as an example of how the law should work. The schools' sponsor, Missouri Baptist University, opted to give up its authority to run the schools rather than having it taken away from them. The state board then took over the schools and promptly shut them down.
Like traditional public schools, charters take MAP tests annually. Because educators say this year’s results should not be compared with last year’s, people looking for some indication of what the scores here signify might compare them to the scores for St. Louis Public Schools.
But Thaman said that benchmark isn’t necessarily the best one to use.
“We know that people are going to always say, ‘Let’s do a comparison to the local district.’ And we try to not have that be the primary indicator. We want to be cooperative with the district. We think it’s in the best interests of students if all public schools are working together, if we’re collaborating when it makes sense to collaborate.”
This year, for example, the KIPP charters entered into an agreement with St. Louis Public Schools to use vacant city school buildings in exchange for the city schools to be able to use KIPP students’ MAP scores as part of their overall test report.
Eventually, Thaman added, the goal is for all charter students to score at or above the average for Missouri students.
“When kids graduate and then move into college and then beyond college,” he said, “they’re not going to be competing just with kids in their neighborhood. They’re gong to be competing for jobs against kids from the state and people all over the country. So we have to look beyond just the local school to how they’re doing in comparison to the state and the rest of the country.”
Looking at the numbers
So, what do numbers for individual charter schools mean?
The accompanying chart shows how students in St. Louis charter schools scored, in terms of percentages who ranked proficient or advanced in English or math, and how they did compared with the city public schools and the state.
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As with Lafayette Preparatory Academy, the numbers don’t tell the whole story.
Nicole Evans, principal at City Garden Montessori on Tower Grove, is proud of the results by her students in kindergarten through eighth grade. But she acknowledges an achievement gap between students of color and white students – an important fact because of the school’s mission.
“We work very hard to intentionally have an integrated school,” she said. “We are determined to create a model of a public school that offers an outstanding education but also builds community within our family.
“We are trying to offer a bright spot right here in the city of St. Louis, in the 63110 community. We are very intentional about that. We are intentional about creating a 50-50 integrated school. We don’t want an all African-American school, nor do we want an all white school.”
Using the development theories of Maria Montessori, developed in the ghettoes of Italy, Evans said City Garden wants to make sure each student is treated as an individual and gets what he or she needs to grow.
“So each child is getting what he or she needs academically,” Evans said, “and we can trust and know and believe that everything child is getting that. That is where the Common Core push came from. It came from wanting to level the playing field.”
Growth is also an important measure at Lift for Life Academy in Soulard, the first charter to open in St. Louis, which enrolls students in grades six through 12. Its numbers were 25.4 percent in English and 24.3 percent in math, well below city averages. But Marshall Cohen, co-founder and executive director of the school, said that kind of snapshot doesn’t do any school justice, including his.
Instead, he said, you need to look over a longer period of time, to get an idea of where students were when they enrolled and where they are now.
“You need to ask whether the longer the student's with us, are they improving academically,” he said, “And the answer is yes.”
He pointed to a grade of 71 percent on the high school students’ Algebra II exam as a particular bright spot. But, he added, placing too much emphasis on test scores ignores other features of the school’s program.
“What about graduating kids who would have never walked across with their diplomas?” Cohen said. “How many do you help that might have dropped out or might have been thinking about suicide or having other social problems and not even getting that diploma?"
Schools, toothpaste and choices
So with all those factors to look at, and all those schools to consider, parents might be forgiven if they wanted to return to the old days where there was one public school to enroll their child, and not as many choices as you have with your cell phone or your cable television service.
Robbyn Wahby, the new executive director of the state’s charter school commission, says limiting choices would be a mistake.
“I think anybody who goes in to buy toothpaste feels the same way,” she said. “How many brands of toothpaste are there? How many automobiles are there? How many places to eat are there? I think choice is good.
“You know your child. You know what your family belief systems are. You know what you want for your family and for your community. The key for public policy is to ensure that those choices are high quality, and that you’re not making a choice between this failing school and that failing school,” Wahby said.
Added Thaman, at the charter school association:
“I think it’s also important that [parents] talk to other parents. They need to look at the culture of the school, the climate of the school, the safety. They need to have a sense of who the instructors are and their comfort level with the teachers.
“There is absolutely nothing wrong with a parent looking at a school, whether it’s a charter school or a district public school, and saying that it is not right for my child. That’s the whole point. Parents need to have that choice, because they know their children better than anybody else.”
Wahby, who helped with Mayor Francis Slay’s push for charters before leaving City Hall for the charter commission, suggested a blueprint for parents to follow when trying to narrow their choices. For starters, as parents consider factors other than test scores, they should be sure to dig deeper to find out what’s really going on.
“If all of the teachers are leaving,” she said, “or half of the teachers are leaving every year, you have to ask yourself about the stability of the school. But maybe someone is trying to turn the school around, and you want half the staff to leave. So you can’t just simply say that’s a bad thing. You have to have knowledge about what you’re looking at.
“Look at how long the school has been around. A third-year charter school is very different from a 10-year charter school, or a district school that’s been around fro 150 years. If a district has done an intervention, they’re going to try something new. They’ve hired a new staff. They’ve really intentionally redesigned that school. One year is not sufficient to make a decision. I know that’s complicated, but this is complicated stuff, and it’s worth our time.”