Ohio’s Charter Schools Show Promise, Study Says

Published March 1, 2006

As Ohio’s charter schools came under increasing criticism in the media last year, the state’s General Assembly passed legislation capping at 60 the number of new charter schools to be opened in the state over the next two years.

But while it’s true Ohio’s charter schools don’t yet measure up to the state’s public schools’ standardized test scores, there’s more to the story than meets the eye.

When the Ohio Proficiency Test (OPT) scores were released last summer, many media outlets seized the opportunity to highlight the fact that the state’s charter schools, which have been permitted only since 1998, were lagging behind the public schools in student performance on standardized tests.

In response to those criticisms, on December 21 the Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions, a nonpartisan research and educational institute in Columbus, released a new study, Using the Ohio Proficiency Test to Analyze the Academic Achievement of Charter School Students: 2002-2004, coauthored by policy analyst Matthew Carr and senior research fellow Samuel R. Staley. The authors found charter schools’ year-to-year improvements on the OPT actually exceeded those made by public schools, despite spending less money per pupil and having less-experienced teachers.

“Studying charter schools is tricky because charter schools are often targeted to the most disadvantaged populations–at-risk students, high school dropouts, that sort of thing,” said Greg Forster, a senior fellow at the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation in Indiana, who conducted an external review of the Buckeye Institute study. “If you set up special schools to serve disadvantaged populations, naturally those schools are going to have lower test scores than the standard suburban schools serving privileged kids who aren’t struggling with the same problems.”

Study Results

After applying statistical controls to confounding influences such as poverty, the researchers compared charter and public school performance on student achievement improvement, rather than overall passing rates. They then studied how each type of school and population compared to their peers–for example, low-income population to low-income population.

The study examined five subsections of the OPT–citizenship, math, reading, science, and writing–at both the fourth- and sixth-grade levels. The analysis examined changes in passage rates in two different phases. The first controlled for demographic variables such as race, poverty, and income; the second controlled for demographics plus school characteristics such as spending on teachers and administration. In both phases, charter schools equaled or exceeded public schools in passage-rate improvements for all subsections studied. The authors also examined each school’s Performance Index Score (PIS). According to the study, the PIS is “a single numeric score based on the combination of OPT scores and several other indicators such as attendance and graduation rates.” Each school in Ohio is assigned a PIS. Ohio’s charter schools showed greater gains than public schools in fourth-grade citizenship, math, reading, writing, sixth-grade writing, and the PIS.

“Thus, when comparing charter schools with their traditional, government-run counterparts in similar geographic and socioeconomic environments, and controlling for the salient variables in education,” the authors concluded, “we find that charters outperform their peers in 6 of 9 testing categories and perform just as well in the other 3.”

Answering Critics

As an example of the criticism facing Ohio’s charter schools, the authors cite a June 29, 2005 Cincinnati Enquirer article that noted, “Ohio’s charter schools began as an innovative alternative to low-performing public schools: Give kids longer school days, year-round instruction or specialized education, and they might thrive where otherwise they would not. But seven years later, the system is faltering. More than half of 112 charter schools rated by the state for student achievement are labeled in ‘academic emergency’ or ‘academic watch’–the lowest rankings possible.”

But such criticism misses the point that charter schools are serving a distinct student population, Carr said.

“Comparing [charters] to the state average, which includes suburban and country club school districts, is just ridiculous,” Carr said.

“It’s not our intention to say that all charter schools are doing great,” Carr continued. “There’s a bell curve there. Some schools are doing really well. There’s a nice curve of schools that are doing pretty well, and then there are schools that aren’t doing well, and that’s how the system is supposed to work. You know, that’s part of the market of charter schools. Those low-performing schools will be closed and replaced.”

Greg McConnell ([email protected]) is a freelance writer in Palatine, Illinois.

For more information …

The Buckeye Institute report, Using the Ohio Proficiency Test to Analyze the Academic Achievement of Charter School Students: 2002-2004, is available online at http://www.buckeyeinstitute.org/docs/Policy_Brief_Charter_Achievement.pdf.

The Cincinnati Enquirer article, “High Promises, Lagging Results,” published June 29, 2005, is available online at http://news.enquirer.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?aid=/20050629/news0102/506290364.

The Web site of the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation is at http://www.friedmanfoundation.org/.

The July 18, 2005 Ohio School Boards Association brief, “Taft signs budget bill; over 200 districts will see no increase,” is available online at http://www.osba-ohio.org/71805lr.htm.

See also:

“Defining the Education Market: Reconsidering Charter Schools,” http://heartland.org/article.cfm?artId=17730

“California Charters Show Above Average Gains,” http://heartland.org/Article.cfm?artId=16295

Cincinnati Enquirer, “These Schools Sell for Profit,” June 30, 2005, http://news.enquirer.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?aid=/20050630/news0102/506300352/1058/news01