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Charters Near Top—and Bottom—of California Rankings

California charter schools are more likely than non-charters to be among the states' top performers—but also more likely to be among the laggards—a new report concludes.

The second annual "Portrait of the Movement," released by the California Charter Schools Association on Thursday, offers a mixed picture of the sector's standing, compared with traditional public schools. But the association also sees a number of bright spots, including the relatively strong performance of charters in serving students from poor backgrounds.

The association represents 982 charter schools across the state. It ranks schools on an accountability measure that assesses school performance while filtering out non-school factors affecting student achievement through a statistical method known as regression-based predictive modeling.

Using this method, the association attempts to examine whether schools are performing significantly above or below their predicted performance.

The report finds a "U-shaped" distribution for charter schools, meaning they were more likely both to exceed their predicted performance compared with non-charters, based on student background, and—to a lesser extent—under-perform. It concludes that 14.7 percent of charters were in the top 5 percent of California schools, well above the 4 percent of non-charters in that category. But 12.7 percent of charters showed up in the bottom 5 percent of performance, compared to just 4.2 percent of non-charters.

Other findings:

—Charter schools operated by charter management organizations (CMOs), were more likely to be among the highest-performers than were charters run by networks or freestanding charters. (The association defines networks as groups of schools that have a common philosophy but not centralized governance or operations. They could also be CMOs that have fewer than three schools);

—Family income had nearly four times less of an impact on school performance among charters than it did at non-charters. That provides an example of how "family background does not define student outcomes," the authors say;

—"Classroom-based" charters were more likely to score in the top-end of performance than were non-classroom-based charters, such as virtual schools or those with blended models of learning; and

—Over the past three years, 72 California charters closed, but only 21 of them were in the bottom 10th percentile of performance. The report concludes that "low academic performance is rarely the primary cause cited for a charter school closure."

"We are pleased to see that charters continue to provide significant value, particularly to students in urban centers, where the achievement gaps are particularly stark," the authors say. Yet they are also "concerned to see that this year's record of closures and authorizing actions suggests that the current oversight and renewal process does not provide sufficient clarity to compel authorizers to address or act upon the results of under-performing charter schools."

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