District unveils first ranking of public charter schools

December 6, 2011

The District unveiled its first rankings of public charter schools Tuesday, part of a new rating system that offers parents a broader assessment of school progress than annual standardized test results.

The new performance evaluation shows how test scores of students have grown over the last year, relative to their academic peers across the city. Schools also are assessed against a series of leading indicators and “gateway” measurements that researchers regard as predictors of future educational success. They include third-grade DC CAS reading scores, eighth-grade math scores and 11th-grade PSAT results.

The new system raises the bar of accountability for the 53 publicly financed, independently operated schools that educate more than 30,000 D.C. students across 98 campuses. While some of the information in the assessments is already available in annual performance reports, the new system creates a more detailed and easily accessible snapshot for parents and families.

“The idea here is that we really do want to shine a light on what’s going on in our charter schools,” said Brian Jones, president of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, the body empowered to authorize the opening and closing of charter schools. Joined by Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), Jones unveiled the new rankings at a news conference at one of the top-rated schools, Achievement Prep in Southeast Washington.

The new ranking system, developed by the board over the past three years with the help of outside consultants, also represents the leading edge of a new generation of more-detailed school report cards that will soon be available to parents across the region.

D.C. Public Schools and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education are expected to release their own school ratings emphasizing academic growth over time rather than annual test scores. Virginia and Maryland are also committed to making similar changes in reporting school data.

The 71 charter campuses are listed in three tiers of overall quality, based on a 100-point scale. The rankings unveiled Tuesday, which cover the 2010-11 school year, delivered few surprises. Among the 22 charter campuses in Tier I were schools with established records of high student achievement. They include D.C. Preparatory’s Edgewood middle school campus; the three KIPP middle schools (AIM, KEY and WILL) and its College Preparatory high school; Thurgood Marshall Academy and Washington Latin high schools; Two Rivers, a PS-8 school; and Howard University Middle School.

The 15 Tier III schools, considered the weakest performers, include the middle and high school campuses of Maya Angelou; Center City’s Congress Heights campus, a PS-8 school; and Options, serving grades six through 12.

The remaining 34 campuses were ranked in Tier II.

Schools that win top-ranking are exempt from further in-depth monitoring by charter board staff. Officials said Tier III schools will get additional scrutiny, including consideration for possible closure by the board.

Other so-called “non-standard” schools — those offering early childhood programs, or serving adult or exclusively disabled populations, were not ranked. Officials said the charter board will be developing an alternate system to appraise their performance.

The new rating system does not address the condition of the schools’ finances or governance, frequent trouble spots for charter schools. Charter board member Darren Woodruff, who played a key role in developing the new system, left open the possibility that such information could be added in the future. The board monitors those issues through its other oversight measures, Woodruff said, and for the moment, “we want the focus to be on academic performance.”

The newest wrinkle in the rating system is the “growth model” for gauging academic progress. Each charter school student taking the DC CAS standardized test is compared to other students citywide with similar test score histories and is given a growth percentile. For example, a student with a growth percentile of 60 has done as well or better than 60 percent of his or her academic peers.

The individual student data is developed into schoolwide median growth rates. At the Petworth campus of Center City, a Tier I charter school in Ward 4, for example, the median growth rate in reading in grades three through eight is 66.5 percent. At Center City’s Congress Heights campus in Ward 8, the same median growth rate is 52.7 percent.

The rating system is the product of considerable wrangling between the charter board and schools. Some schools protested so vehemently to a version developed last year that it was pulled back for retooling.

“I think they’ve made a lot of progress,” said Linda Moore, executive director of Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom charter school in Northeast Washington, adding that the new edition is less confusing and more user-friendly.

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
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