Arizona Charters: I’m Not Left Handed Either

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So Arizona charter schools rocked the 2017 NAEP again. In 8th grade math, Arizona charter students narrowly scored below the top scoring state (Massachusetts) in 2015 and above them in 2017. Arizona charter schools educate a majority minority student body, both overall and specifically in 2017’s 8th grade class. It’s really quite extraordinary to see them in the same academic neighborhood as MA, given their majority-Anglo, high income, spend twice as much per pupil combo status. If MA is a good sport, they would fight left handed- what chance does a majority-minority school system with half the spending per pupil have against the highest performing state education system in the nation many years running?

I decided to dig into the details.

The Free and Reduced Price lunch definition has become fairly sketchy, so in the below comparisons I will make use of parental education as a proxy for socio-economic status. Another source for variation between states and sectors involves special program students, so the below comparisons will focus on general education students (neither ELL nor SPED). The first set of scores are for students whose parents did not finish college and are in the general education program:

Massachusetts is still winning the duel, but not comfortably-switch to the right hand? Note for the record that 10 out of 10 of the top performing states have a majority Anglo student population. In fact you don’t spot a majority minority student population state until Texas pulls in at #19. Did I mention before that Arizona charter schools are majority minority? Oh, yes, well good that again then.

Now let’s run the same numbers for general education students with college graduate parents. This should be the MA right handed fighting btw- far more fancy degrees in Massachusetts than Arizona after all, more graduate degrees as well. Well, Arizona charter kids are not left-handed either:


14 Responses to Arizona Charters: I’m Not Left Handed Either

  1. Michael J. Norton says:

    You are such a cheater. To those who do not knnow a thing about BASIS you just did a good job of faking like AZ Charters are pulling off miracles with our Mexican heritage majority minority.

    But as we really know, the kids who are rocking those tests are the children of Tech and Medical Industry Immigrants and Visa holders from India.

    If we sent all the White Tech and Medical professionals from Arizona to Massachusetts for 5 years, and put them in a small and select Charter, you would get the same results.

    This is one of your worst efforts at mystifying the NAEP ever,

    • MatthewLadner says:

      Basis only educates a small fraction of charter students and Hispanics vastly outnumber Asians in the student body. In addition AZ Hispanics attending charters outscore their peers in all states on this test.

      • matthewladner says:

        Statewide there were 5.6 Hispanic students for every Asian student taking the AZMerit ELA exam among 8th grade charter students in 2017. There are not enough Asian students attending AZ charter schools to make the minimum sampling requirements, so we can’t get a NAEP score for them, but AZ Hispanic students attending charter schools exceeded the national average by almost 20 scale points.

  2. Dan says:

    Fascinating analysis. Just curious, what about the six states left out of the tables?

  3. Melissa says:

    I’d love to see a blog that addresses the percent of Arizona students who scored proficient or above on the 2017 NAEP tests. Are we content leading the nation in gains when 65-70 percent of Arizona’s students aren’t proficient in reading or math? Are we content knowing that white and higher income students score ahead of the national average while students of color and low-income students fall far behind the national average? Approx. 2,300 AZ students took each NAEP test. How many of those are charter students?

    • MatthewLadner says:


      Gains are the only way to get the proficiency rates up, and as the 2017 demonstrated the country, you can’t take them for granted. NAEP does not provide data on sample sizes, but AZ has the highest % of students attending charters in the country, but it is still less than 20% of the overall public school population.

      • Melissa says:

        Thanks for the response. I agree that it’s important to celebrate the gains made by AZ students. However, celebrating the gains without also mentioning how far we need to go is irresponsible, in my opinion. Arizona is facing a growing achievement gap that needs to be addressed. Let’s celebrate gains and growth while also discussing proficiency and ways we can work together to ensure the success of every student. Let’s dig into the differences between high and low performing schools and students (demographic, economic, geographic, leadership, etc.) to determine what is truly sustainable and replicable.

      • MatthewLadner says:

        In international comparisons, MA ranks as a top tier European/Asian country. Ergo, AZ charters students are doing quite well on proficiency. Statewide AZ still has a long way to go but has been moving in the right direction.

  4. Stephen Ronan says:

    In wondering about the results you present in light of this:

    I imagine this may help as an explanation:

    Would you agree? What other major contributing factors would you anticipate?

    • matthewladner says:


      On your first point, there are other studies using circa 2011 or 2012 data that did not find such great results for AZ charters. This has approximately the relevance that the 2012 Philadelphia Eagles went 4-12 and last year they won the Superbowl. There have literally been hundreds of charters open and close since the data presented in this study, and the ones that remained open may have become more effective. NAEP wasn’t all that crazy about AZ charters back then either- but that could have easily been because the sector had tons of young schools full of kids who just transferred in and were adjusting to a new school.

      On the ACLU report, only a random assignment study could definitively establish the degree to which differences in student bodies explain differences in outcomes in a definitive fashion, and such studies are impractical for a statewide sector evaluation. The popular mythology that, for instance, neither an ELL or Special Needs child has ever crossed the threshold of an AZ charter school however is demonstrably false and cannot explain why both high SES and low SES general education students rank up with the top states when compared to their peers in my mind. So while differences in student demographics may indeed advantage AZ charter students vis a vis AZ district students, a majority minority AZ charter sector outscoring similar students (in terms of general ed program and parental education) from Vermont looks pretty awesome to me. I mean considering VT is one of those few states with an average six figure income and spends twice as much per pupil, is majority majority, etc.

      The most unfortunate thing about the ACLU report is that we now know that district open enrollment kids outnumber charter kids ~x2 and anything and everything going on in charter land is going on among the districts. Charters at least have a legal requirement to conduct an open enrollment admissions lottery that is subject to audit. State law only requires districts have have an open enrollment policy, and how the decisions get made is opaque.

  5. […] right. Arizona charter students outscored students in Massachusetts (and every other high-achieving, demographically advantaged state in the nation) on the […]

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