Capitol Weekly Response: Clarifying Confusion about CCSA's Accountability Efforts

December 22, 2011

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The California Charter Schools Association (CCSA), and our members, believe that all charter schools serving children in California must be held accountable for educating them well. It is for this reason that we have taken the lead role in assessing charter school quality and ensuring appropriate academic accountability within the movement. These conversations are not always easy. And we certainly understand that families and communities may have questions and want to better understand why schools have been identified and recommended for non-renewal for not meeting minimum academic performance criteria.

In the op-ed, the author seems confused about the methodology used in CCSA's Portrait of the Movement report, which informs the Similar Students Measure (SSM), a metric used to help identify underperforming schools. In CCSA's analysis, schools are only compared to other schools in the same grade level; elementary, middle, and high schools are each analyzed separately and then one metric is applied that allows for a unified assessment of all schools in which grade span is accounted for. Thus, for example, high schools are assessed relative to the performance of other high schools. Furthermore, for schools that have broader grade spans (for example, grades 6-12), additional controls are included in the models to account for that fact.

As a result, the SSM does not unfairly punish higher grade levels, and statewide analyses reveal that charter middle and high schools are actually more likely than charter elementary schools to out-perform on this metric. Furthermore, CCSA only applies the SSM as a metric for identifying schools that we would not recommend for renewal if and only if they are also have a low API score and have low cumulative API growth, in addition to underperforming on the SSM over time. The resulting criteria achieve several things: they include the important grade level controls as described above, they give schools credit for school-wide growth, and they establish a clear and stable bar of absolute academic performance that applies to everyone, and does not muddle or water down the system by having different standards for different groups of schools.

The author does point to several constraints that we face with California's data infrastructure, namely the lack of a longitudinal database that allows us to track individual student growth over time. It is because of this that CCSA led the charge to spend years with a broad range of external academics and consultants, researching and developing a new metric that better isolated the impact of the school while using publicly available data. Furthermore, even after applying this metric for accountability purposes, CCSA conducted extensive outreach to schools below the criteria and invited them to submit additional student-level showing demonstrable academic gains not reflected in our analysis. Schools were given approximately two months to submit any of these mitigating data. This type of due diligence was conducted to ensure that the data that CCSA is acting on represents the fairest assessment of academic performance of each school, and schools recommended for non-renewal are those in which a longitudinal view of growth failed to show a different picture.

Lastly, the author seems to have interpreted that CCSA has asserted that non-classroom-based charter schools as a group are not effectively educating students. This is false. To the contrary, we consistently celebrate the diversity and innovative approaches prevalent within the charter movement and are encouraged by the fact that we see charter schools of all types, pedagogical models, and communities served performing at high rates across the state. For example, one of the key findings of the Portrait of the Movement report is that charters are weakening the link between poverty and underperformance at a rate of four times as non-charter schools. Within nearly 1,000 charter schools statewide and growing each year, we are encouraged that innovative quality options for parents are expanding at a high rate.

This does not change the reality that a small number of charter schools are persistently under-performing and failing to help students reach their full academic potential. This fact does not rest on any singular type, design, or region of charter schools, but the responsibility must lay within all of us in the movement to be forthright about the need to demand better for our students. For the sake of the students attending these schools, and for the sake of the millions of students who will attend charter schools in the future, we must act with proper resolve to make sure that all charter schools generate acceptable levels of student learning.

Longer term, CCSA will continue working to advocate for better accountability systems for charter schools - and indeed all schools. However, we also believe that school closure is a natural part of a healthy charter school movement. Charter schools across California are charging at some of our society's most difficult problems and are being innovative in the process of doing so. Of course, not every school is going to prove successful. By design, this is what our movement is all about. But look at the broader results that charters are generating. Over 412,000 students attending charter schools and the public is increasingly aware and supportive of charter schools because we have amongst California charters, some of the highest performing public schools in the nation. As we prepare to move into the third decade of our movement, we know that if we can continue to keep the right balance of freedom and flexibility in exchange for high levels of accountability, with supports and rewards for high performance, we will keep our movement on track for becoming that truly transformational reform effort which reinvents public education as we know it.

Jed Wallace
President and CEO
California Charter Schools Association

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