The Wall Street Journal
By: Barbara Martinez
August 2, 2010
Statewide, They Fall Further Than Traditional Public Schools, but in the City, They Still Outperform District Competitors
The Equity Project Charter School garnered headlines and accolades when it opened last September with an unusual plan: recruit top teachers and pay them $125,000--substantially more than the average teacher salary anywhere in the country.
Its test scores did not match the hoopla: Only 37.4% of the students were proficient in math and 24% were proficient in English. On average, the other public schools in Equity Project's Washington Heights district performed better, the test scores released last week showed.
"It's not unexpected" for a first-year school, said Zeke Vanderhoek, founder and principal of the middle school. "I'm very confident in the vision of the school and the teachers we have, but we're not there yet."
Last week was a difficult one for Equity Project and many other charter schools. Statewide, charter schools lost more ground than traditional public schools when the state raised proficiency standards.
In English, 77% of students in all schools were termed proficient last year; this year that number dropped to 53%. Charter schools fell further: to 43% proficiency in English from 76%.
Despite the tumble in proficiency levels, New York City charter schools still by and large outperformed the competitors in their own districts--the very schools they were meant to compete with.
Charter schools are publicly financed but privately operated. They are open to all students, generally through lotteries because there are far more students who want to attend than there are seats. They exist in the poorest neighborhoods and nearly all the students are black or Hispanic.
In math, 81% of the New York City charter schools had higher proficiency scores than the public-school competitors in their districts. Of those, 61% beat the traditional public schools by more than 20 percentage points. In English, 70% of charter schools beat their district competitors.
KIPP Academy Charter School had three times as many eighth-graders at the proficiency standard in English than the Bronx public schools in its district. But KIPP AMP, in Brooklyn, had 33.7% of the middle-schoolers at English proficiency, just matching the district's dismal scores. "We're disappointed" with some of the test scores, "but we're excited that the state has raised the bar," said David Levin, cofounder of KIPP, which has seven schools in New York City.
In math, two charter schools were in the top 25 out of nearly 1,100 public elementary and middle schools. Harlem Success Academy Charter School, with 95% proficiency, and Icahn Charter School 2 in the Bronx, with 94.8% proficiency, both came in just ahead of P.S. 77 Lower Lab School, a gifted and talented school where students must pass tests to get in.
On the other end of the spectrum, the poor performance of some charter schools raises questions about whether regulators are doing enough oversight. Two weeks ago, the New York State Department of Education renewed the charter of Opportunity Charter School, the city and state's worst-performing charter school. Eight percent of the students were proficient in English and 7% were proficient in math. In the district in which Opportunity competes, proficiency scores in both subjects were above 50%.
Tom Dunn, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, said Opportunity's test scores weren't available at the time the Board of Regents voted to renew. He noted that Opportunity has a very high-needs population and that because of "concerns about the school's performance" it was granted a two-year renewal, rather than the usual five years.
A spokesman for Opportunity Charter, David Nachtweih, said in a statement that more than 50% of the students have special needs and that the majority of them arrive in sixth grade "far below grade level." Still, he added, "It's clear we still have a lot of work to do."
Write to Barbara Martinez at Barbara.Martinez@wsj.com