In late September, New York released the 2017-2018 academic year Math and English Language Arts statewide public school test results. The numbers were interesting on many levels.
Why ‘opt out’? The high-stakes canard
The opt-out movement continues unabated, with 18 percent of New York’s 3rd through 8th graders refusing to sit for the 2018 exams, down slightly from 19 percent in 2017. Interestingly, the opt-out movement is predominantly a suburban phenomenon. Across Monroe County, seven suburban school districts reported refusal rates of 30 percent or more while every district had a refusal rate in the double digits. Conversely, two-thirds of Rochester’s charter schools, which primarily enroll city residents, experienced test refusal rates in the single digits while the Rochester City School District saw just 6 percent of its students decline the exams.
I find the whole opt-out phenomenon quite puzzling. Testing’s opponents argue that the consequences of the test results are so onerous—the “stakes are so high”—that they allegedly subvert the educational process, distorting what is taught and creating an atmosphere of fear that destroys a child’s natural curiosity. But the logic in opposing these so-called high-stakes tests doesn’t hold up. The tests are taken in April and May. Schools make their decisions whether or not to promote a student on to the next grade in June. The state exam results generally aren’t released until August. So, if the state doesn’t release the test results to a student’s local school district until the child is safely ensconced in next year’s classroom, what is so “high stakes” about them?
It is true that Gov. Andrew Cuomo attempted to tie test results to school and teacher outcomes, but that effort was effectively beaten back by the teachers union and its allies in Albany, and finally quashed by Betty Rosa, the union-friendly Board of Regents commissioner. So, the stakes were briefly “high” for the teachers—but never for students. So why opt out?
As a parent—or a property tax payer—who wouldn’t want to know how their local schools stack up against those in other districts, both across the county and across the state? A child gets only one chance at being 7 years old. Shouldn’t we ensure that his or her school experience is as enriching as possible? But how can we know unless each school is benchmarked against other schools using the same evaluation yardstick? That’s the benefit standardized state testing brings. The tests may be high stakes for individual school districts if the exams lay bare a district’s educational failures, but they certainly aren’t high stakes for individual students.
In fact, quite the opposite is true. If everyone were to boycott the exams, parents would have no way of knowing how their local school and school district stack up against other districts. They’d be flying blind with no evaluation data to fall back on. Is your child’s “A” in arithmetic really an “A”? Or would the same knowledge level translate to a “B” or a “C” in a more rigorous school district across town? We’d have no way of knowing. Now, that would be high stakes!
Testing isn’t just a school phenomenon, it’s a part of everyday life. In sports, the scoreboard matters. In business, the bottom line matters. In broadcast media, ratings matter. In politics, the vote tally matters. Testing doesn’t end with the walk across the stage on graduation night. Therefore, it is incumbent upon educators to prepare their students for that reality, not shield them from it.
Granted, not everything educators impart to students—curiosity, self-discipline, creativity, self-expression, and myriad other things—can be quantified into standardized test formats. As the saying goes; “not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted.”
But some things both count and can be counted. For example, each year school districts highlight the prestigious college acceptances of their graduating seniors and boast about the percent going on to college as evidence of the superior education the district has provided.
But here’s the thing. Have you ever heard a school district talk about the college graduation rates for these students? I haven’t. And it isn’t because the information isn’t readily available. For $425, the National Student Clearinghouse will provide any high school with college completion data for the school’s last eight graduating classes. It will show how many students from each class enrolled in college, how many of them graduated, how long it took each student to graduate and how many are still enrolled in college.
Read this week’s Beaconomics: “Making sense of the graduation rate.”
The data is there, it’s a quantifiable outcomes measure, yet school districts never talk about it. Is their silence due to modesty over great outcomes or is it because their students’ college completion statistics are far less flattering to their public narrative of educational excellence than their college acceptance numbers? The flight from outcomes measurement is as much a school district phenomenon as it is a parent and student dynamic.
Charter schools outperform
New York’s charter schools once again outperformed their local school districts as well as the state as a whole. The tests are scored on a scale of 1 through 4 (low to high). In math, 55.8 percent of New York’s charter school students scored a 3 (proficient) or a 4 (advanced) on the 2018 exams versus a 44.5 percent statewide average, while in ELA, the numbers were 54 percent for charter schools versus 45.2 percent statewide. When you consider that charter schools primarily enroll poor, urban, minority students while the statewide averages blend in suburban, urban and rural communities, the charter schools’ performance is all the more remarkable. That’s especially true since New York’s charter schools achieve these superior outcomes with considerably fewer taxpayer dollars than their local district counterparts. So, New York’s charter schools are delivering significant value for both their students and the taxpayers alike.
Why do charter school outperform?
Charter school opponents cite many nefarious reasons for this charter school outperformance, with these three being the most frequently cited:
First, charter schools are said to “counsel out” low-performing students. This one has been around for a long time, but rarely substantiated with hard data. The argument is counterintuitive since charter schools are funded on a per-pupil basis. Any charter school that “counsels out” poor-performing students deprives itself of the revenue attributable to that child. Given that charter schools receive significantly lower taxpayer funding than their district counterparts on a size-adjusted basis, charter schools can ill afford the revenue loss that pursuing such a policy would engender.
Second, charter schools allegedly “cream-skim” the best students, not enrolling their fair share of English language learners (ELL), students with disabilities (SPED) and poverty-stricken students. The poverty argument simply doesn’t hold up, as charter school students tend to be every bit as poor as their district brethren.
When it comes to ELL and SPED students, there is some truth to the claim, but for non-nefarious reasons. New York’s charter schools are required to accept any student who shows up on their doorsteps. If there are more applicants than available seats, charter schools are required to admit via a lottery, although preferences are available for siblings of current students as well as for ELL and SPED students. As “schools of choice,” families and students pick these schools, the schools don’t pick their students. If a special needs or ELL child’s parents believe their local district school has more resources available to assist their child, which is often the case, then that’s their choice to make.
Finally, charter school critics allege that, by the mere act of selecting the charter school option, parents are demonstrating a more active interest in their child’s education. I’m sure most charter school parents are interested in their child’s educational success. And parental involvement in ways such as ensuring that homework assignments are completed is important. But completing a charter school application requires no more effort than does filling out a district school enrollment form.
If you talk to successful charter school principals about their students’ collective success, they’ll likely tell you that their students’ achievement can’t be traced to any one big thing but rather to 1,000 little things. Each charter school is different. Some are single sex, but most are coed. Some take an experiential approach to learning, whereas others have the same look and feel of the old parochial schools of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s—minus the crucifixes, of course. Some are arts or STEM-focused, others are generalists. Most employ an extended school day, most require uniforms and most tend to stress personal discipline. But beyond that, each school tends to be unique, with its own special sauce for bringing out the best in its students.
And, that’s one of the beauties of the charter school model. It isn’t one-size-fits-all. Children all learn differently. The wide palate of charter school options provides parents with the freedom to choose the school whose educational approach best matches their child’s individual needs and learning style.
How Rochester compares
In Rochester, the need for the educational alternative that charter schools provide is especially acute. Here are the percentages of students scoring a 3 or a 4 on last year’s statewide exams in the Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse and New York City school districts as reported by the state State Education Department:
Students in the New York City Public School System performed four times better than those in Rochester while students in the Buffalo City School District performed twice as well. And it isn’t as if the RCSD has a large group of students who scored high 2’s and are just on the cusp of reaching proficiency; 72 percent of the district’s students scored a 1 in math and 62 percent scored a 1 in ELA. Proficiency is far off in the distance for the majority of RCSD students.
While student poverty is certainly a contributing factor to RCSD academic outcomes, let’s remember that charter school students are mostly poor as well. In fact, only 30 percent of “Not Economically Challenged” (i.e., not poor) RCSD students scored a 3 or 4 in ELA and only 25 percent in math. Both numbers are well below the state average. Forty percent of those “Not Economically Challenged” RCSD students scored a 1 in ELA and 51 percent scored a 1 in math. So, even the bulk of non-poor RCSD students aren’t remotely proficient in either subject.
These numbers dramatically illustrate why charter schools are so important to the economic future of Rochester’s children. Rochester can create all the anti-poverty programs it wants. But if we don’t equip the City’s youth with a robust education, those anti-poverty initiatives have zero chance of success
Urban education and racial inequality
Here’s how the RCSD’s 2018 testing outcomes break down by race, showing the percentage of student test takers in each category who fell into each of the four scoring buckets:
The numbers, while poor across the entire racial spectrum, are particularly acute when it comes to black and Hispanic achievement levels in math, where three quarters of the students scored “1.”
Racial tension in America no longer revolves around segregated restrooms and drinking fountains. Today, it stems mostly from economic inequality. While there is no silver bullet for resolving this problem, urban educational failure is clearly a significant contributing factor to Rochester’s—and America’s—economic inequality. If you can’t read, you can’t write and you can’t do math, you are unemployable. And, if you are chronically unemployed, you are destined to be poor. We can’t fix poverty, we can’t fix urban decay and we can’t defuse racial tensions until we fix urban education. So, shouldn’t urban education reform be a central part of our community’s conversations around these issues?
There are those who contend that we can’t fix urban education until we fix poverty. They’ve got it backward. We can’t fix poverty until we fix urban education. Charter schools aren’t a panacea and by no means is every charter school a great school. But, year after year, the outcomes data makes it clear that, in the aggregate, New York’s charter schools do provide a valuable alternative for thousands of urban families. That’s certainly the case in Rochester, where approximately 18 percent of the City’s public school students have opted for a charter school alternative.
To those who oppose the charter school movement, I have one simple question: “What is your proposed solution to the urban education crisis?”
Is it more money for urban school districts? According to the U.S. Census Bureau, New York already spends 90 percent more per pupil on K-12 education than the national average. New York’s charter schools consistently outperform their local district counterparts while spending considerably less money per student. So more money isn’t the answer.
How about an enhanced urban/suburban student exchange? That might prove interesting. But there’s a large “chicken and egg” problem to be solved. Until the RCSD’s outcomes numbers improve, how many Pittsford, Webster or Spencerport families do you envision signing up to enroll their children in RCSD schools? And, to be fair, this isn’t just a Rochester problem. While Buffalo’s student proficiency is twice that of Rochester’s, the Buffalo City School District still isn’t all that great either. It is hard to envision Orchard Park or Williamsville families being any more willing to bus their children into the heart of Buffalo than it would be for families living in Monroe County’s suburbs. Ditto for Syracuse.
The beauty of charter schools is that they are held accountable for the student outcomes they produce. Unlike district schools, charters are subject to renewal every five years. If a school isn’t producing acceptable student outcomes, the charter isn’t renewed and the school closes. This isn’t an idle threat. Rochester has seen three closures over the last 13 years and is likely to see more in the years to come.
Because ineffective charter schools aren’t allowed to go on failing their students year after year, school leaders recognize that they have to deliver positive student outcomes or risk losing their school. That’s a pretty powerful motivator. Most charter school principals probably wouldn’t include that as one of those “1,000 little things” driving their school’s academic performance. But that knowledge sits in the back of every responsible charter school trustee’s mind. And it should. Rochester’s children deserve nothing less.
Geoff Rosenberger is board chair of Rochester Prep Charter Schools. He co-founded Clover Capital Management Inc. in 1984 and served as managing director until his retirement in 2004.