ESEA waivers and charter school authorizing

As ESEA waivers change the school-accountability landscape, charter authorizers need to take the opportunity to rethink how we too can measure school progress. Ohio, as part of its Title I waiver, moved to an “A” to “F” rating system for schools, is implementing new standards and assessments, and is providing some flexibility around various reporting requirements. Ohio has also developed a new report card for schools that reports on—among other measures—AP/IB participation rates, student growth in multiple categories, gap closing, honors diplomas, industry credentials, and graduation rates. This revamp at the federal and state levels has, in turn, compelled us at Fordham to reconsider how we structure our own accountability plans for the eleven charter schools we authorize. This tension is captured in our recent report, Remodeled Report Cards, Remaining Challenges.

As per Ohio’s new school report card, the Buckeye State now deploys and reports on a slew of academic measures, including value-added scores for gifted students, students with disabilities, low-income students, and low-performing students. All are part of state accountability. Should they also be part of charter-to-authorizer accountability? Should we hold our charter schools to account for improving their performance on every measure that the state throws into its report card? When it comes to important authorizer decisions about schools—renewing their charters, putting them on probation, or letting them add grades or additional campuses, for example—what matters more: proficiency rates or growth? What about IB and AP passing rates? Graduation rates?

Looking at our authorized schools, the growth-versus-proficiency question is particularly salient because many students arrive in their classrooms far below grade level. Columbus Collegiate Academy, for example, serves students in grades 6 through 8, and at least 90 percent of them are economically disadvantaged. Many sixth graders enter well below grade level. However, by the time CCA’s students complete eighth grade, 100 percent (of those who have attended CCA for two or more years) score proficient or better on the state’s reading and math tests and 96 percent of students in the seventh grade who have attended for two years also score at least proficient in both subjects. (These are 2012–13 test results.)

Even more impressively, CCA students show tremendous year-to-year growth on Ohio’s value-added measure. Indeed, in 2013 CCA received an A rating in value-added overall, as well as an A rating for value-added progress for students ranked in the lowest 20 percent of the state for achievement. This impressive growth is why the school twice earned the prestigious EPIC award from New Leaders for New Schools. Yet despite these fine results, CCA earns only a C on Ohio’s performance index (a measure of absolute proficiency rather than growth) on its new report card.

The story is similar at the KIPP school we authorize in Columbus. Incoming fifth graders fared poorly in 2009 on Ohio’s state assessments: Just 29.4 percent tested proficient in math, and 33.4 percent were considered proficient in reading. By 2012, however, graduating eight graders posted proficiency scores of 82.3 percent in math and the same in reading. Like CCA, KIPP made tremendous progress with its students, and in 2013 earned an overall grade of A in value added, as well as A’s in the value added subcategories of lowest 20 percent and students with disabilities. Yet, KIPP’s performance index was also rated C because of the relatively low proficiency rate when all of its students in all grades are measured against a single fixed standard of attainment.

As far as we can tell—from the data, but also from frequent visits—CCA and KIPP: Journey are excellent schools. Their value-added grades are much more indicative of their quality than are their proficiency rates. But should we ignore proficiency entirely (as Mike Petrilli has at times argued), or (as Checker Finn has urged) must we acknowledge that reaching the ultimate destination is as important as making progress toward it? Our goal as an authorizer is to have a fair and transparent system that is rigorous and holds schools to challenging yet attainable academic outcomes. After all, these are the standards upon which schools are renewed or not, stay open or close, are the subject of forceful actions such as probation, are encouraged to grow and replicate, etc. The stakes, therefore, are high. Balancing the shifting policy environment with what makes sense for kids, schools, taxpayers, and the commonweal will be key. We will keep you informed as we work through these questions—and we would also welcome your input.

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