WASHINGTON – Underprivileged students in charter schools (search) do worse in reading and math than their peers in mainstream schools, but children of the same race or ethnicity do as well in either type of school, according to a limited government study of fourth-graders.
The Education Department (search) review released Wednesday is the first to rate charter school performance based on how students performed on the federal test in reading and math in 2003.
The results immediately drew much different interpretations from those who say charter schools fall short and those who champion charters, including the Bush administration.
Charter schools receive public money but operate under fewer restrictions than other public schools, allowing them more freedom in what and how they teach. They are a form of school choice for parents and are embraced under federal law — so much that traditional schools can be forced to convert into charters if they continually fail to make progress.
Overall, the charter school students scored lower in math than other public school students in the new study. They earned a 228 test score compared with 234 for the other students on a scale of 500, a gap large enough to be statistically significant.
In reading, there was no overall difference between charter students and other students.
Education Department officials said the fairest comparison was between students who shared characteristics. In that respect, there was no academic difference between charter students and other students who shared their race or ethnicity — white, black or Hispanic.
Given that many charter students have a history of academic struggles, "If they're doing as well as regular students in regular schools, that's not a bad sign," said Deputy Education Secretary Eugene Hickok.
Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, which supports charters, called it a "remarkable feat" that they were yielding the same performance despite getting less funding and more political resistance than mainstream schools.
But Bella Rosenberg, assistant to the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said parity among racial and ethnic lines was "hardly cause for jubilation."
"In the case of black and Hispanic youngsters, it means that they are doing as poorly in charter schools — the schools that were supposed to be their salvation — as they are in other schools," said Rosenberg. Although her comments about the schools' performance were largely critical, she said the AFT does not oppose charter schools.
Students did not excel no matter what their school: Less than a third were "proficient" in math or reading, the level of skill they should have under federal standards. For minorities, the performance in both subjects was even lower in all public schools, charter or traditional.
The popularity of charters has grown fast, with more than 3,300 schools serving close to a million students. Allen said that in several studies, including new research by Harvard University professor Caroline Hoxby, charter students are outperforming their peers.
Yet in the national study, Rosenberg of the teachers union said, the key finding is that poor students do worse in charter schools than their peers in other public schools.
The AFT also contends that traditional school students score better than charter school students in reading — not only in math, as the study says — when special education children are excluded, since traditional schools have a higher percentage of children with special needs.
Compared to traditional schools, charter schools tend to enroll more black students, locate more in central cities and hire fewer certified teachers, the study found.
Study directors warned against drawing broad conclusions because of limitations in their research of 150 charter schools. The study does not, for example, take into account wide variations in charter schools or collect data on individual student progress.
"We're nervous always about early findings, small sample findings, pilot studies, because the findings may very well be tentative," said Darvin Winick, chairman of the independent National Assessment Governing Board, which commissioned the study. "It is difficult to keep people from rushing to judgment."