Standardized Tests and Charter Politics

On Thursday, the School District of Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission voted not to renew the charters of three schools. This is a new and, in many ways, encouraging move for the SRC to take. For years, the SRC has approved charter renewals even in the face of serious violations and mismanagement. Though this new SRC is likely prompted by a need to cut costs, holding charter operators accountable is extremely important. There should be real repercussions for operators who misuse public dollars. Renewal should never be a rubber stamping process.

I’m troubled, however, by the criteria that have been used to evaluate these schools and, as a result, the schools that have been targeted for potential closure. Two of the schools that the SRC voted not to renew, Arise Academy and Hope Charter, were established with the explicit purpose of serving severely at-risk youth. Hope Charter opened in 2002 and serves youth who have dropped out or been pushed out of the traditional school system. Many of Hope’s students have a history of disciplinary infractions and arrest records. Arise Academy opened in 2009 and is the only school in the US that solely serves youth in foster care. While the SRC has certainly raised some valid concerns about the governance and financial health about both charters, much of the criticism of Hope and Arise is based on academic indicators such as performance on standardized tests, average daily attendance, and student retention. To be sure, it makes sense to track this type of data and hold schools accountable to meeting certain benchmarks. But for schools like Hope and Arise, which serve such severely at-risk youth, these indicators cannot be the end-all be-all gauge of success because their student populations put them at an extreme disadvantage, especially when compared to traditional schools with less needy student bodies.

When it comes to meeting city, state, and federal testing targets, these types of youth are at a distinct disadvantage. Many of the youth who attend Hope and Arise have had their education interrupted for significant amounts of time and, sometimes, on multiple occasions. Transferring to different schools and school districts, inconsistent housing, financial hardships, involvement in the criminal justice system, and other obstacles that these types of students deal with more than most youth all disrupt schooling. Naturally, when a student arrives at a school like Arise or Hope, they are far behind students at traditional schools who have not had such turbulent pasts. So it is unrealistic to expect them to perform at the same level on standardized tests as most students.

Ongoing instability in these students’ lives also puts these types of schools at a disadvantage with regard to meeting attendance and retention goals. Life continues to happen regardless of whether a young person is enrolled in school or not. In many cases, the crises that forced these young people out of the traditional school system do not end when they start at a school designed to meet some of their specific needs. With this in mind, it is only natural to expect attendance to be lower at a school serving at-risk youth than at a traditional school.

All of this is not to say that Arise and Hope should not be expected to push their students academically or to have high expectations. Indeed, they should be expected to push harder than most schools would because that push will be absolutely necessary for their students to cover the necessary curricular ground to get where they need to be for graduation. However, these measures should be reviewed within the real world context in which they exist. This should not be an excuse for administrators. But we should see standardized test performance and attendance for what they are: indicators. They certainly tell us something about a school, but they never tell us everything.

As a result of this system, charter (and traditional school) operators are incentivized to push out their most needy and at-risk youth. One student who is dealing with a crisis at home and has spotty attendance can hurt a school’s attendance data. One student who disrupts a class can distract the rest of the students from the lesson plan, slowly and incrementally affecting everyone’s standardized test scores. Interventions are certainly necessary in instances like these. Unfortunately, instead of receiving the added support that these students need, they are often pushed out of school so that teachers and administrators don’t have to deal with them.

A similar process is playing itself out on a larger level with the votes to not renew Arise and Hope’s charters. To be fair, Hope has been plagued by an array of problems, many of them far more serious than attendance data and standardized test performance. A case can certainly be made for its closure. But Arise is the first school of its kind and it has only been around since 2009. A steep learning curve and severe growing pains are to be expected with such an ambitious undertaking as opening a school that solely serves youth in foster care. If these schools are to close, I hope that the School District provides the necessary additional supports that Hope and Arise students will need to re-enroll somewhere else and successfully continue their education. Otherwise they will simply be pushed out and closer to failure once again.

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