Can tests scores be trusted to evaluate charter schools?

Friday, February 7, 2014, Vol. 38, No. 6
By Lisa Fingeroot


As the Tennessee Legislature prepares to debate a host of proposed charter school bills, opponents are tapping into research that claims charters often use questionable tactics to skew test scores, among them “cherry-picking’’ high-performing students while “counseling out,’’ those who test poorly.

“States have set up incentive systems that reward schools that enroll students who excel on high-stakes standardized tests,” says Kevin Welner, an education policy professor and director of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) located at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

“Any given charter school [one that is publicly-funded, but privately-operated] can be very welcoming or very unwelcoming and restricted,” Welner says.

Welner’s research – The Dirty Dozen: How Charter Schools Influence Student Enrollment – names 12 methods used by charter schools to weed out students who might not perform well or even encourage them to leave the school if they get through the enrollment process.

Welner also found some charter schools blatantly breaking federal education laws by asking for social security cards and documents detailing the conditions of students with special needs. The requests were used to deter illegal immigrants from applying to the schools and also to weed out special-needs students.

Rebecca Lieberman, managing director of school and sector initiatives for the Tennessee Charter School Center, says as far as serving low-income students, Nashville is a unique case. Until two years ago, Tennessee law allowed charter schools to serve only students in failing public schools, which were traditionally located in poor neighborhoods.

Charter schools opened in Nashville specifically to cater to low-income students, but the change in state law has not caused a significant change in the charter school demographic, she explains.

‘Dumping group’

In general, says Amy Frogge, Metro Nashville School Board member, the lower performers are living in poverty without involved parents, are students with special needs, or are those who don’t speak English.


Educating those students, she adds, can add a financial burden to a school system already losing funds to charter schools.

“Since traditional public schools are open to every child, they become a ‘dumping ground’ for the charter schools that don’t want poor performing students to drag down their test scores,” she says. “This creates a tiered educational system with neighborhood schools struggling to serve ‘less desirable’ students, essentially meaning students who don’t test well.”

“Standardized test scores have become the new currency,” she says, adding that some neighborhood schools are being labeled as failures because of poor test scores when student performance is the result of many factors not just the quality of instruction at one school.

‘Counseled out’

Also included in Welner’s report are cases in which children are “counseled out,’’ of a school when parents are told their child with special needs would do better at a neighborhood school. Parents also may be told their student will be retained in his current grade if he stays in the charter school.

Lieberman says she has not heard of any “counseling out,’’ or other restrictive enrollment polices in Nashville, and says she often hears the opposite.

“I’ve heard of charter schools who take on additional staff to help kids who have to be fed (because of special needs), and of some who rearrange their budgets for in-class support (for the same students).

“A lot of times, what we see is that a kid who is struggling in public school can succeed in a charter school that can serve them more creatively.”

Vanderbilt gets involved

Nashville school officials have claimed for some time that low-performing students are “counseled out” of charter schools shortly before state tests and sent back to traditional public schools, which become responsible for the child’s test performance even if the child only recently enrolled there.

Some data was released last spring that suggests Nashville schools with the highest attrition or loss rates were charter schools, but supporters cried foul, not only on the implication of impropriety, but on the data itself.

As a result, Vanderbilt University launched a study of attrition rates for charter schools, magnet schools and traditional public schools in Nashville.

Lieberman says she does not know when to expect the completed study, but she says she believes it will show Nashville charter schools don’t practice policies designed to dump low-performing students.

“Certainly, charter schools are there to serve all students, and they do everything they can to serve them effectively,” she says.

‘Transportation nightmare’

Negative marketing techniques are also used, Welner adds. Brochures and flyers might be published only in English so they do not attract the attention of non-English speaking parents. Even the photos used on school material can be used to send a message that the school is open to only to a few.

Others have used an expensive and private pre-K program to funnel wealthier students into public charter school and create a wealthier student body, Welner adds.

To limit the number of low-income students, charters might also refuse to enroll students during the middle of a school year because disadvantaged families tend to move often, Welner says.

Charter schools can also use location as a tool. They sometimes set up shop near the neighborhoods they hope to serve, which also deters disadvantaged students from enrolling because they have fewer transportation options, Welner says.

“It’s the transportation nightmare,” explains Gary Miron, professor of evaluation, measurement, and research at Western Michigan University and also part of the NEPC group of educators who conduct research.

Single-parent families usually find transportation to be the main reason their kids cannot attend charter schools, he says, adding that charter schools rarely provide transportation unless forced to do so by state or local law.

Since poor test scores lead to lower school performance ratings, a charter school is more likely to survive if it attracts better students, Welner says. One way is to market the new charter school as one with a rigorous curriculum. Parents whose children aren’t top performers are not as likely to express interest.

Once the test scores are logged and show the expected results, the school is labeled successful. Word begins to spread and more talented students will enroll.

Nashville schools are the exception to the rule, however, according to Lieberman. Every charter school here provides some type of transportation, even though they are not required to do so, she says.

However, transportation routes for charter schools do not include every neighborhood in Nashville, and each individual school can determine how to accommodate the students it serves.

Miron has conducted dozens of charter school studies for state agencies, as well as the federal government. Like Welner, he has seen a number of methods used to restrict charter school enrollment like mandatory parent volunteer hours or even strongly suggested financial donations.

However, he does not believe selective cherry-picking of students to be widespread or systematic.

Welner’s findings also include schools that used lengthy application forms, essays just to get into the school lottery, mandatory character references, short application periods, and even admission tests to determine a student’s learning level to discourage applications.

Disciplinary actions like expulsions or even monetary fines for inappropriate behavior that can be as simple as not looking a teacher in the eye also are used to push students out, Welner says.