Attendance key to Chicago charter success

Attendance key to Chicago charter success

(Ill.) The long-held perception that charter schools cherry-pick incoming students as a means of boosting their academic status isn’t true, at least as far as charter schools in Chicago are concerned, a four-year study shows.

Most students choosing to attend charter high schools as freshmen had eighth-grade test scores that were either comparable or lower than their counterparts from the same feeder middle schools, according to analysis released this week by the University of Chicago.

Those same incoming ninth graders, however, on average had higher attendance records during their middle school years while about one third of them also had a higher grade-point-average in the eighth grade.

Researchers found that as a result, the same cohort charter school students outperformed their peers who attended traditional schools on post-secondary outcomes.

The message for traditional public schools was that they could learn a few things.

“Given the range of performance among charter schools, and also among non-charter high schools, finding ways in which charter and non-charter high schools can engage in more collaboration around best practices could be beneficial,” said Julia Gwynne and Paul Moore of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.

“Many non-charter schools in Chicago have spent years focused on improving student course performance in an effort to increase high school graduation rates,” they wrote. “Similarly, a number of charter high schools have developed strong records promoting test score growth and college enrollment; these schools may have insights that could lead to more access to opportunities for Chicago’s young people. Sharing best practices among all of Chicago’s high schools—charter and non-charter— could be one way to ensure that there are strong school options—and student outcomes—in both sectors.”

While numerous studies have examined student outcomes at charter schools compared against students of similar economic and cultural backgrounds that attend traditional public schools, the consortium’s report is the first in-depth look at the question within the Chicago public school system.

Like other big metropolitan areas, critics of the ever-growing charter network here have question if their success is connected to selective admission practices and using aggressive counseling practices to push out low-performers.

This study, the authors said, is one of the few to compare student performance not just on test scores but other important indicators including grades and attendance because both have shown to be more predictive of later outcomes.

The conclusions are based on review of data drawn from four school years ending in 2013.

Students in Chicago Public Schools have several options by law when deciding where to attend high school, including their neighborhood schools, magnet schools, career academies and charters.

Some of those schools can have admission requirements based on test scores, attendance or grades. Charters are not allowed to impose enrollment filters, and instead must accept all applicants if they have space, and to use a lottery when space becomes limited.

Only about one-half of all charters in Chicago run lotteries.

The vast majority of incoming high school freshmen chose to attend a school other than the one in their neighborhood: about 50 percent chose a traditional high school outside their area; another 20 percent chose to attend charters.

The study found that nearly two-thirds of the students who enrolled in charter schools had dramatically higher attendance rates than their peers in the same feeder pool.

Although prior research from the Chicago Consortium has strongly linked attendance as a predictor of student success, there is some concern that families whose children want to go to charters are already predisposed to higher educational expectations. To address this bias, other researchers have used as a control group students that attempted to enroll in a charter but lost out in the lottery process.

The Chicago team said this wouldn’t work because only half of the charters in the city need to use the lottery.

Instead, they used an extensive set of information about students prior to their entry into high school, including their background characteristics, academic performance, whether they attended a neighborhood school, and the characteristics of their eighth-grade school, including quality and climate.

“Because the information on students is so comprehensive, it likely addresses any selection bias that may have impacted charter school students’ outcomes,” they explained.