AZ Charters CeleNAEP Good Times Despite District Creaming

August 20, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The full implications of this new analysis from the Arizona Charter School Association showing that Arizona charter schools receive district transfers who are below statewide averages on AZMerit, and send students to districts who are on average above the statewide average, can only be fully appreciated in the context of additional data.


Quick play by play on the above chart: 85,000 students transferred between public schools between the 2014-15 school year and the 2015-16 school year. The AZMerit tests were given in the spring of 2015, before the students transferred to a new school in the Fall of 2015 for the 2015-16 school year. The sending sector in other words owns the score.

A huge part of the ongoing Two-Minute Hate against Arizona charter schools has been the notion that they are engaging in systematic creaming. The problem with this story is that the above chart reveals it to not only be false in aggregate, it also reveals it to be the exact opposite of the truth. On net the districts are sending out below average students to charters, and receiving above average students in return. The districts, in short, are guilty of precisely the charge hurled (without evidence) against charters. This is not to say that there aren’t individual schools, district and charter, doing bad things, but the net of everything everyone is doing appears to be district not charter creaming.

The part about charters sending above average performing students to districts deserves a special mention. A part of the litany against charters involves an obsession over high-school attrition rates in BASIS. This has always been off base, as only a small percentage of Arizona charter students attend BASIS, and BASIS is basically the Green Berets of academics. The Green Berets have an attrition rate as well, but the people who complete the training are deadly military professionals. Arizona students are very active (85,000 total transfers in a single year in a ~1.2m student system) and do so for a large variety of reasons- social, athletic, academic etc. I’ve always thought that the students who don’t complete BASIS were likely to have been better off for the experience, and lo and behold that seems to be the case statewide across charters. In other words, when the 8th grade BASIS student chooses to attend a comprehensive school to play football as a 9th grader and brings above average academics with him, the proper response from the district should be one of gratitude rather than condemnation. When the statewide scores show districts to be sending away low-performers in droves (to both charters and other districts btw) the complaint positively reeks of hypocrisy.

But I digress…

Another part of the two-minute hate litany would have us believe that a child with disabilities has never crossed the threshold of an Arizona charter school. If however one goes to the state’s AZMerit data file, you find the statewide percentage of district children with disabilities stood at 11.1% and at 9.73% in charters on statewide ELA exams. The percentages are similar in the math exams. In a similar fashion there is a difference in rates of limited English proficiency, but nothing like what the blaring telescreen would have us believe: 6.3% for districts and 4.4% for charters.

What about the part when the double-plus good duckspeaker screams through the telescreen to tell us that charters are bastions of White segregation? Try again: 55% of charter students are non-Anglos compared to 63% of Arizona district students. There is a difference, but both sectors are majority-minority, and neither looks like either Vermont (or North Scottsdale).

Some of the difference between charter and district performance is certainly explained by differences in student demographics but here is the next shoe to drop in the AZMerit data: every single subgroup available scores higher in charters than they do in districts. Native Americans, Latinos, African-Americans, Asians, Whites, ELL, SPED, FRL etc. students all score higher in AZ charters than in AZ districts. Some of the difference is certainly owing to demographic differences, but nothing close to all of it.

So turning our attention to the above chart and pairing it with NAEP, it makes the NAEP data seem even more impressive when you consider the fact that Arizona districts are sending below average performers to charters, and charters are sending out above average performers. Despite that, NAEP shows us things like this:

So for those scoring at home, Arizona charter schools educate a majority-minority student body, receive only about $8500 per pupil in public funding, receive low-performing students on average from districts, and send higher than average performing students to districts and…scored higher than Massachusetts on the 2017 8th grade NAEP exam plus demonstrated the best 2009-2017 improvement in the country.

I fully expect our friends in the Arizona charter school skeptic community to doubt the AZMerit analysis. My recommendation to them is to file an open-records request with the Arizona Department of Education for the same data file. Crucial findings such as this deserve scrutiny and replication. The evidence currently available leads to only one conclusion: Arizona charters are working extremely for the students fortunate enough to attend them.

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