Utah's charter schools performed far better than their traditional public school counterparts in meeting Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals for the federal education program No Child Left Behind.
Eighty percent of Utah's public schools met AYP goals for the 2007-08 school year, with far more meeting those goals by appeal than the previous year. By contrast, 95 percent of the 58 Utah charter schools tested met the federal requirements, with only one charter appealing, according to results released last week by the State Office of Education. Between 27,000 and 32,000 Utah students attend charter schools, which this year number 68.
Utah charter schools also outperformed traditional public schools
on the Utah Performance Assessment System for Students (U-PASS) test, a state complement to AYP. Ninety-three percent of charter schools passed, compared with 87 percent of traditional schools.
Rather than tout their higher pass rates, though, most charter school administrators point to differences that may weigh in their favor. AYP requires that schools meet goals across all 10 subgroups of students in order to pass. Subgroups include special education students, English Language Learners (ELL) and groups defined as "disadvantaged minorities."
Data compiled by the state show that in traditional public schools, 39 percent are "economically disadvantaged," 12 percent are a "disadvantaged minority," and almost 11 percent are students with special education needs. The charter school numbers: 24 percent "economically disadvantaged," 8 percent "disadvantaged minority" and slightly more than 10 percent special needs. The state office could not provide current ELL enrollment figures.
Sonia Woodbury, director of City Academy charter school in Salt Lake City, said her 185 students represent many subgroups, but some are small enough to be statistically insignificant for purposes of meeting federal goals. City Academy met AYP requirements this year and last.
"We have them all, pretty much, but they're smaller," Woodbury said. "The way that's calculated in AYP can sometimes make it easier for charter schools."
Judy Park, associate superintendent at the State Office of Education, said that in general, public schools tend to enroll more subgroups at greater numbers. That makes passing AYP more difficult.
"If your school has 10 of those subgroups, there's 10 ways you can pass or fail in order to meet AYP," Park said. "What percentage of charter schools have ESL learners?"
Although both draw on public funds, charter schools don't have geographic boundaries and operate under a specified charter based on student needs and interests. Also, charter schools are often smaller in both school and classroom size.
Rebecca Raybould, who analyzes AYP tests for charter schools, agrees that from a statistical standpoint, the number of subgroups and their size make meeting the requirement easier for charters. Still, she said comparing public and charter school AYP performance makes for uneven comparison. AYP and U-PASS often skip certain grade levels in their assessments, and therefore large groups of students, she pointed out.
"It's detrimental, even though everyone loves to do it," Raybould said. "It splits the point, which is to educate kids."
Brian Allen, chair of Utah's State Charter School Board, said that although he doesn't know details of subgroup distribution at charter schools, public schools would do better to examine what charter schools do well instead of "excusing away" the disparity in AYP goal results. "Charter schools are a fine complement to public schools in the state. We ought to be learning more from each other," Allen said.