Pennsylvania charter schools defend test scores

| Sunday, July 11, 2010

The latest Pennsylvania assessment test scores show that more charter school students are underperforming than students at traditional public schools.

Among charter school students, about 20 percent didn't meet basic academic standards in reading and math, compared with about 12 percent of district students, according to 2009 Pennsylvania System of Student Assessment test results.

"I get very upset when a report comes out and then people think that charter schools are no good," said Richard Wertheimer, founder, CEO and principal of City Charter High School, Downtown, which was given a warning last year because not enough black students met state math standards.

Whether a school meets federally-mandated student achievement goals is based on the number of students who score as advanced or proficient, meaning they showed a solid understanding of the material. About 75 percent of Pennsylvania public school students scored advanced or proficient in reading and math, compared with about 59 percent of charter school students.

"The discussion of quality schools always revolves around a test," said Wertheimer. "At our school, our mission wasn't to raise test scores; it was to graduate students with great talents and abilities, and for them, a year after they've left here, to be successful at what they're doing."

A recently released Department of Education-funded study of 36 charter middle schools in 15 states found they performed about the same as traditional public schools in improving student achievement, behavior and attendance.

Robert Furman, director of the principal certification program in Duquesne University's School of Education, said charter schools are a popular alternative for students struggling in public schools.

"Right at the get-go, you are getting a population that is not predisposed to higher achievement," he said. "I think that's a real factor."

Linda M. Clautti, CEO of Northside Urban Pathways, a Downtown charter school, said charter schools often have to get students up to speed on things they should already know.

"We're expected, in a year, to make them proficient, but that is near impossible because of (the struggling school districts) they come from," she said.

Jeremy Resnick, executive director and founder of South Side-based Propel Schools, which serves more than 2,000 students at six locations in Allegheny Count,y said he believes that during the next five to 10 years, student achievement at charter schools will improve.

The federally-funded study found that charter schools with the highest percentages of disadvantaged students saw the math and reading scores of low-income or low-achieving students improve by their second year at the school.

At Propel Schools, nearly 75 percent of students are economically disadvantaged, and 77 percent of students were proficient in math and 65 percent in reading, according to 2008-09 PSSA results. Nearly two-thirds of City Charter's 570 students are disadvantaged, yet the school has met state academic standards in all but two years since 2005.

Part of that success is due to small student population and more individual attention, Wertheimer said.

"I don't want anyone to think that charter schools are the magic wand," he said. "But if a child walks in here with a terrible educational background or something that has not gone well in their life, I can say we will be on it much faster than any traditional public schools I know."

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