Pennsylvania charter school test results sag

Stricter evaluation standards lead to much poorer outcomes

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Recalculated figures for attaining Adequate Yearly Progress on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams for 2012 show that 28 percent of charter schools met the standard compared with 49 percent based on calculations made previously.

With the recalculation released by the state Department of Education, no cyber charter school in Pennsylvania made AYP. One cyber charter met the standard under the old calculations.

The recalculations were ordered in November after federal education officials denied Pennsylvania's request to evaluate charter schools using more lenient standards.

Statewide, of the 144 brick-and-mortar charter schools, just 43 made AYP under the recalculated figures, while 77 made it with the more lenient standards used in September, according to figures compiled by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

Also in September, one of the 12 existing cyber charters -- 21st Century based in Exton, outside of Philadelphia -- made AYP, but was downgraded to a "warning" status with the new calculations.

In Allegheny County, the change means that four brick-and-mortar charter schools saw a status change from "Made AYP" to "Warning": Environmental Charter School at Frick Park, Manchester Academic Charter School, Propel Homestead and Propel Montour.

PG graphic: New calculations show decline in charter school AYP rating
(Click image for larger version)

The Pennsylvania Department of Education in September treated charter schools as districts rather than individual schools when calculating AYP.

Schools must hit certain targets at every tested grade level to achieve AYP, but a district needs only to hit targets in one of three grade spans tested -- 3-5, 4-6 or 9-12.

In November, U.S. Assistant Education Secretary Deborah Delisle said Pennsylvania's request to use the district method was "not aligned with the statute and regulations" and ordered Pennsylvania to re-evaluate charter schools' AYP standards under the individual school method. She said Pennsylvania could assess charter schools under the district method but only in addition to the school method.

The state will now assess charters under both standards, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education. On Monday the website paayp.emetric.net will have the side-by-side school and district calculations for charter schools, said Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Department of Education.

While local charter school officials could not be reached for comment about the recalculations, Bob Fayfich, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, worries that the data are being misrepresented.

"It's a situation where people who are opposed to charter schools are taking the data and interpreting it the way they want to," he said. "What we've always asked for is an equitable interpretation of the data. This latest calculation does that, but they are simultaneously defining charter schools as [districts] and schools."

As for the performance of cyber charter schools, Mr. Fayfich said that cyber charter schools sometimes draw students who have had trouble in school and many students enter cyber charter schools behind grade level.

"There's a lot of [turnover] in cyber schools. Students often stay for only one or two years. You don't always have time to get students where they should be. It's a mistake to generalize about all of this," Mr. Fayfich said.

Traditional public school officials said they are glad the federal government forced the recalculation.

"I applaud the federal government for intervening in a state-sponsored initiative that was designed to hide the true results of cyber charters in Pennsylvania," said Daniel Castagna, the superintendent of the West Mifflin Area School District and outspoken opponent of charter schools.

Greg Taranto, the principal of Canonsburg Middle School, said that charter schools should be held accountable in the same way public schools are.

"I'm a proponent of choice, and there's a place for cyber schools, but the accountability should be the same across the board," he said.

PSBA spokesman Steve Robinson said the recalculations are important because the AYP designations given to charter schools in September were misleading to the public. Last fall, the PSBA submitted a formal letter of objection to the U.S. Department of Education to the new AYP calculations for charter schools.

"Our concern was that the way they were calculated originally inflated the numbers and made it seem that some made AYP when they didn't," Mr, Robinson said. "That masked deficiencies, denied families the chance to make informed decisions and would have delayed corrective action measures for those schools."

education - state

Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590. Alex Zimmerman: azimmerman@post-gazette.com; 412-263-3909.


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