Charter performance review unfairly targets non-classroom programs

Operators of alternative charter schools including online and independent study programs are challenging a report released last week that called out non-classroom instruction as being among the lowest performers statewide.

In an effort to strength the academic standards that charter schools are held, the California Charter Schools Association embarked over a year ago on building a sophisticated accountability tool for measuring charter school performance that uses a regressive-based predictive modeling to filter out non-school effects on the students.

But critics also note that the tool also relies heavily on the Academic Performance Index.

The association's first report on how charters stack up, issued to wide media coverage last week, found that charters are more likely to be among the state's highest performing schools but also likely to be among the lowest achievers too.

It identified non-classroom based charters as being more likely in the lowest performing category.

Supporters of the alternative programs said the association's analysis is flawed largely because of its reliance on the API and the inability to account for the common problems posed by students that tend to end up in such alternative programs like independent study or online learning.

While I think there does need to be scrutiny - this sort of indiscriminate flame-throw approach is very damaging," said Eric Premack, director of the Charter Schools Development Center, an advocacy group that represents both classroom-based and non-classroom based charters.

"What it says to the current and prospective charter schools is that you should market your school carefully so you don't end up with one of the bimodal populations that will drag your test scores down," he said. "We have some powerful anecdotal evidence that it is already occurring."

Myrna Castrejon, senior vice president of Achievement and Performance Management at the charter association, defended the analysis as being both fair and valid - but also conceded limitations, too.

"I think it is absolutely fair to apply this model to those schools that have a stable student enrollment," she said. "It is absolutely not appropriate to use it for schools that have an unstable student population because they are by definition dropout-recovery."

She argued that non-classroom based schools do not always serve an unstable student population and while that caveat may have been missed by many readers of the report - it was disclosed.

That said, Castrejon acknowledged that the model is not perfect.

"We know there are limitations to what we have," she said. "But as charters, we haven't had the transparency, the rigor and the measures to hold our end of the bargain and it's time we keep our promises."

Non-classroom based schools are defined in the state Education Code as schools where less than 80 percent of the instruction time is offered at the school site where the instruction is overseen by a certified teacher.

That definition covers a lot of ground - including home schools, independent study, online programs and schools that offer so-called personalized learning.'

Supporters point out that as a category within the charter movement, these schools provide among the most creative and cutting-edge approach that tends to inform and benefit the entire school system.

Jeff Rice, founder and director of the Association of Personalized Learning Schools and Services - which includes more than 40 member schools - said the core problem with the charter evaluation tool is its reliance on the API. He points out that the growth model presumes that a student population will move from grade to grade in a manner that allows uniform testing.

"That's great if you've got a traditional classroom-based model where the same students move together to the next grade in the same school," he said. "That's 180 degrees from what happens in a non-classroom based school.

"That's because non-classroom based charter schools - especially personalized learning - attract kids who have become disengaged and failed from traditional schools," he said. "In many cases, it's the majority of the students."

Because the charter evaluation is biased against the non-classroom schools, Rice said, some of them could be put in jeopardy when it comes time for renewal.

"The association is putting these schools in a compromising position - saying, Well you went down 40 points - we're not going to support your renewal," he said. "And they don't look any further to find out why? The scores went down because these schools were trying to serve a population that wasn't being adequately served and innovate - which is what charters are supposed to be doing."

Castrejon said that while the association wants to use the performance tool to help weed out charters that are not performing - she insists that results from last week's report is not intended to be the basis for schools being shut down.

"What we're saying is that by this metric and this relative measure we're seeing some cause for concern," she explained. "And these schools need to undergo a very careful review by their authorizer and where schools would then be given the opportunity to present better data that does illustrate added-value."

Rice and Castrejon agreed that the school performance question would be a lot easier to answer if there was longitudinal data that could track individual students, year to year.

Each also expressed hope that the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System could be put back on track sometime in the near future - something that has proved an enormous challenge in recent years.

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