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Public schools vs. charter schools: Which provide better student performance?

Robert Niles
By Robert Niles
Published: October 25, 2011 at 7:23 PM (MST)
A lot of politicians - including President Obama and at least two of our local Pasadena school board members - think that charter schools are part of the answer to improving public education. But do charter schools really provide superior education quality over public schools? A study I cited in my last post suggested that they don't. I decided to take a closer look by examining recent test results for charter and public schools here in Pasadena.

There are five charter schools operating within Pasadena Unified School District boundaries - Aveson's School of Leaders (for grades K-5), Aveson's Global Leadership Academy (for grades 6-12), Odyssey, Rosebud and Learning Works. I found results from the most recent state STAR tests on the state of California's website. The state data also includes information about the demographics of these schools, as well as for the schools of the PUSD.

As far as demographics go, none of the five local charter schools look anything like the PUSD. Just 28% of students tested in PUSD last spring were what the state calls "non-socio-economically disadvantaged." That means that only about one in four students in PUSD comes from families with enough income to be able to afford to pay for their children's lunches each day. The rest - 72% of students in grades 2-12 in PUSD - are "socio-economically disadvantaged" and on the federal government's free lunch program. (STAR testing starts in second grade, so that's why I writing about students in grades 2-12.)

It's a different story at the charter schools. At four of the five charters, more than 62% of the students are not in the free lunch group. These charters are serving a much larger percentage of middle-class families than PUSD is. That's not unusual for charter schools. Studies by UCLA, Arizona State and the University of Colorado have shown that charter schools often effectively re-segregate their communities, typically serving students who are at one end or the other of the income scale.

Since higher family income is strongly correlated with higher test scores, it's fairest to compare students in the same income bracket when comparing charter and public schools. Otherwise, the charter schools would be at a huge advantage, given that for four of these five charter schools, they serve a much, much higher percentage of middle-class-income students than the local public schools.

And yet, when you look at STAR test scores by grade just for non-socio-economically disadvantaged students, you'll find that in almost every case, PUSD students in that demographic category outscored the charter school students taking the same test.

(In the table below, the top number is the average STAR test score for non-socio-economically disadvantaged students at that school and grade level. Below that is the number of students in the group, and the percentage that they are of all the students in that grade. Students in fifth grade also take a science test, in addition to math and language arts tests. For clarity, I'be bolded the score of the group that scored the highest on each test at each grade level. Also note that California does not report an average test score for groups of 10 students or less. And if a space is blank, that's because there were no students enrolled at that school at that grade level.)

STAR test scores for non-socio-economically disadvantaged students

Grade and SubjectPUSD AverageAvesonOdysseyRosebudLearning Works
2nd Grade Language398.1
(428 students in group - 28% of total in grade)
(60 students in group - 88% percent of total in grade)
(36 students in group - 71% of total in grade)
(14 students in group - 100% of total in grade)
3rd Grade Language385
(405 students - 28% of total)
(44 students - 90% of total)
(29 students - 66% of total)
(15 students - 88% of total)
4th Grade Language412.1
(379 students - 25% of total)
(44 students - 83% of total)
(29 students - 65% of total)
No score
(10 students - 83% of total)
5th Grade Language388.2
(378 students - 26% of total)
(56 students - 85% of total)
(17 students - 57% of total)
6th Grade Language381.3
(318 students - 23% of total)
(39 students - 74% of total)
(16 students - 53% of total)

PUSD students outscored all of the charter schools on all tests in grades 3-6. Only in second grade did a charter school beat the PUSD average, and that was at the smallest of the charter schools (with only 14 students in the grade - talk about low class sizes!) and the school could not replicate that success in third grade, where its average scores plummeted.

Testing gets more complex in middle school. Many seventh graders in California begin studying algebra, so they take the Algebra I STAR test instead of the basic seventh grade math test. Interestingly, though, only one of 44 non-disadvantaged charter school students in Pasadena took algebra in seventh grade (2%) compared with 85 of 360 non-disadvantaged PUSD students (24%). And in eighth grade - when California state education standards say students are supposed to be taking algebra - only 11 of 46 non-disadvantaged charter school students in Pasadena took the algebra test (24%), while 313 of 384 non-disadvantaged PUSD students took either the algebra or more advance geometry STAR test (82%).

As a result, the only test at the middle school level where a charter school outscored the PUSD average (for non-disadvantaged students) was on the eighth-grade "basic" math test. The charter school students who were held to test below the state-standard grade level outscored the bottom 18% of PUSD math students who hadn't yet advanced to algebra or beyond. (Again, test scores on top, with the number of students taking each test below.)

Grade and SubjectPUSD AverageAvesonOdysseyRosebudLearning Works
7th Grade Language386.1
(361 students)
(36 students)
No score
(7 students)
No score
(1 student)
7th Algebra I458.7
(85 students)
No score
(1 student)
(No students took test)(No students took test)
7th Basic Math365.8
(275 students)
(35 students)
No score
(7 students)
No score
(1 student)
8th Grade Language388.2
(372 students)
(30 students)
(15 students)
No score
(1 student)
8th Science408.0
(375 students)
(29 students)
(15 students)
No score
(1 student)
8th History371.6
(393 students)
(34 students)
(15 students)
No score
(1 student)
8th Geometry412.8
(84 students)
(No students took test)(No students took test)(No students took test)
8th Algebra I336.6
(229 students)
(11 students)
(No students took test)(No students took test)
8th Basic Math294
(71 students)
(20 students)
(15 students)
No score
(1 student)

(Testing gets even more complex at the high school level, where students take a wide variety of elective courses. Given that, and the even smaller number of students in local charters at the high school level, I did not include high school testing in this report.)

What about socio-economically disadvantaged students, the ones on free lunch? In many grade levels, there weren't enough socio-economically disadvantaged students at each grade level in the local charter schools for the state to report scores. Still, the charter school students did better than their PUSD counterparts on 10 of the 20 tests, but there never were more than 17 socio-economically disadvantaged students in any one charter school test group. This data suggests that there might be a testing advantage to limiting the number of socio-economically disadvantaged students in a classroom, keeping them to a small minority of total students in the class. (The one charter where socio-economically disadvantaged students made up the majority of students - Learning Works - scored below the PUSD average for socio-economically disadvantaged students at every grade level where scores were reported.)

But that's not exactly a viable option for a district where more than 70% of the students are socio-economically disadvantaged. And let's not forget that in the Pasadena-area charter schools, that advantage for this small group of students also came along with the much larger group of non-socio-economically disadvantaged students scoring consistently worse than their public school counterparts.

What's the real solution to improving test scores across the board and closing the achievement gap, then? It's not charter schools. It's reducing the number of socio-economically disadvantaged students. The solution lies in reducing child poverty in our community.

So why are so many people so gung-ho about charters instead? Perhaps it's because many parents haven't looked closely at the data, and haven't made an apples-to-apples comparison of academic results among students of similar socio-economic backgrounds. I hope so. But I'm not naive enough to believe that's the only reason charters are winning so much support among politicians.

As I wrote last time, public education is under attack. Some politicians who support charter schools want to steer tax dollars away from voter-controlled school districts and give it instead to the for-profit private companies that run many charter schools. Others are opponents of the labor movement and want to switch schools from public control to charters in order to take jobs away from union-represented teachers. Regrettably, I even fear that a very few charter school advocates might be fine with segregating certain classes of children from the broader community, even at the cost of educational achievement for those children.

The data show that, in Pasadena, charter schools are not delivering superior academic performance over public schools for the majority of their students. In fact, at almost every grade level, the majority of charter school students in the Pasadena area are scoring lower than students in the same demographic category in the public schools. At the middle school level, the majority of local non-disadvantaged charter school students are working below grade level in math by eighth grade, leaving them less prepared for high school (and college and beyond) than their public school counterparts. Even if children in those charter schools try to make the switch to public schools, they'll be starting far behind their new classmates.

And for this, we're exempting charter schools from state regulations, union contracts and voter oversight? For this we are diverting hundreds of thousands of tax dollars that local schools could put to better use? For this, we are accepting non-union teacher positions, typically meaning less pay and fewer benefits for local residents who work as teachers?

Where is the value in that?

Update: For additional information and background about corporate-driven attempts to gain control of public education through charter schools, please see this blog entry from a former public school teacher in New Jersey.

Robert Niles also can be found at

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