As a whole, Tacoma charter students had positive learning growth in reading and math assessments since the schools opened in 2015, a new study shows.
They still have a ways to go to catch up to traditional public schools and other charter schools in the state.
A study published by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) this month compares Washington charter school students with their traditional public school counterparts.
The study analyzed the performance of 1,027 Washington charter students between the 2014-15 and 2016-17 school years.
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Overall, the study found that charter students learn on par with traditional public school students. Some groups of students experienced higher learning growth in charter schools, with English language learners showing the highest growth.
“We were heartened to see promising growth and proficiency trends among Washington’s charter public school students, particularly among black students, students living in poverty, Latinx students, and English language learners,” said Patrick D’Amelio, CEO of the Washington State Charter Schools Association.
The stories varied when charters were separated into three areas: Seattle, Spokane and Tacoma.
Tacoma charter schools experienced a positive learning growth in both reading and math, but they were outpaced by their neighboring traditional public schools.
“The study is looking at early data and a very limited number of students,” Summit Olympus High School principal Greg Ponikvar said. “With that in mind, the findings provide a foundation for our future work.”
Charter school history
Washington charter schools are free for students and funded by taxpayers but run by nonprofits rather than an elected school board.
Charters have a brief — and rocky — history in Washington state. Following voter-approval in 2012, the Washington Education Association and other groups sued, claiming they were unconstitutional.
In 2015, the Washington State Supreme Court struck down the law, ruling that charters were “not entitled to funding reserved for (common) public schools in the state constitution, because they are not governed by a publicly elected board,” as reported by The News Tribune’s Debbie Cafazzo.
In 2016, the Legislature altered the funding source of charter schools to state lottery proceeds. That law was challenged but was upheld by the Supreme Court in October 2018.
The CREDO study aims to answer how charter schools impact student learning by analyzing state assessment scores, some of which were released for the first time this year.
The study also used a “virtual control method,” which pairs charter students with their “virtual twins” from traditional public schools.
With charter schools still relatively new, CREDO researchers acknowledged the data is “promising but not yet definitive.”
“Many of the indicators are headed in the right direction, but future updates will provide additional detail around the long-term story of charter school impacts in WA,” said Margaret Raymond, Director of CREDO at Stanford University.
According to OSPI data, there are currently a total of twelve charters operating in Washington, with approximately 3,300 students enrolled. More than 500 of those students attend a charter in Tacoma.
State assessment results for the 2017-18 school year were released last year. They contained some Tacoma charter school results for the first time.
SOAR Academy (grades K-8)
Third graders meeting standard: 13.3 percent in math, 19.9 percent in reading
Destiny Middle School (grades 6-8)
Sixth graders meeting standard: 22.6 percent in math, 37.6 percent in reading
Seventh graders meeting standard: 17.9 percent in math, 24.5 percent in reading
Eighth graders meeting standard: 22.6 percent in math, 32.9 percent in reading, 32.9 percent in science
Summit Olympus High School (grades 9-12)
Tenth graders meeting standard: 19.9 percent in math, 55.5 percent in reading
11th graders meeting standard: 55 percent in science
All charter school test scores are below the average scores for Tacoma Public Schools, aside from 11th grade science, where public school students scored a 27.1 percent average, well below Summit Olympus’ 55 percent.
The biggest gap is in third grade, where math and reading scores of charter students lagged by 30 percent.
The gap lengthens when compared to other charters in the state. Comparing two testing periods, charter students performed significantly lower in both reading and math on their first test (25th—35th percentiles) than charter students in Spokane (55th percentile) and Seattle (50th percentile).
The result is not entirely surprising, according to Cynara Lilly, spokeswoman for Destiny Middle School.
“Our 6th grade students enter up to five grade levels behind academically,” Lilly wrote in an email to The News Tribune. “We know this is not because of their potential — all of our students are on the path to college — but could be due to systemic barriers such as bias, low expectations, tracking and other inequities.”
On their second test scores, Tacoma charter students saw improvement — but still well below the scores of their Seattle and Spokane peers.
“Where there are gaps, we are pushing in additional resources and academic coaching for students and educators ... For example, we are proud that last year we sent more than a third of our 8th grade class onto highly selective magnet public high schools, which traditionally serve just 16 percent of the Tacoma public high school population,” Lilly said.
Compared to Seattle and Spokane charter schools, the study also found that charter schools in Tacoma:
Serve a higher percentage of students in poverty
Serve a higher percentage of students with special education needs
Serve a higher percentage of Hispanic students
Overall, black and Hispanic students performed better at charter public schools, but the growth was small and virtually indistinguishable from their traditional public school peers. Comparably, students in poverty also performed better at charter schools.
English language learners stood out the most, reaping the largest benefit from charter school education with 83 more days of learning in both reading and math compared to public school ELL students.
The trends are promising, D’Amelio said.
“These positive trends suggest that our schools and sector are performing as intended — successfully serving systemically under-served students that our state’s charter public school law and our schools were designed to serve,” he said.