High school charter students lag on AIMS test
Arizona Republic
Jul. 19, 2007

 Earlier grades keeping pace  

Pat Kossan

Elementary students in Arizona's charter schools are steadily improving their performance, nearly matching their peers in district schools at every grade level, according to AIMS test results.

But as charter students reach high school age, their performance on the reading, writing and math test plummets. That gap persists despite the fact that charter students' scores are inching upward.

Supporters say the slow but steady progress proves the market-driven charter school concept is responding to parent demands for academically strong schools. The state also is pressuring charters to improve student achievement. "These charter school operators are getting a lot more savvy about what it is they need to do and are really taking the public trust given them seriously," said Mark Francis of the Arizona Charter Schools Association.

Charter schools are run by privately owned businesses or agencies that receive state education money based on the number of students enrolled.

The number of charter owners fell in 2006-07 to 355, down 20 in one year.
But a record 93,210 students attended charters, representing nearly 10 percent of all K-12 students.

Charter schools gained more state and federal grants over the past three years, but that cash came along with pressure to improve student achievement or get slapped with a "failing" label. It sparked change in charter schools and alerted parents to go shopping for the best, Francis said. Charter schools that can't market themselves as high performing can't attract students, which is deadly for schools that rely on word of mouth.

The gain on Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards for elementary charters was most evident in eighth-grade math scores. Although the percentage passing in district schools fell in math from 63 percent to 62 percent from 2005 to 2007, it rose in charters from 54 percent to 60 percent.

The weak spot for charters was 10th grade, where students struggled in every subject tested. Supporters say charter high schools tend to serve the poorest students along with those who struggled academically in district high schools and sought an alternative.

The charter association, along with the state, is providing charter owners academic training to help them survive and excel. As for owners who can't meet the demands, "We're going to counsel them into new professional career goals," Francis said.

Tom Horne, Arizona superintendent of public instruction, said he wants charter and district schools to work together to improve student achievement.

"One of my themes is to get charter schools and district schools to stop seeing each other as competitors and to see each other as engaged in the same enterprise," Horne said. "You walk into a classroom and you see good or bad teaching, and whether it's a district school or charter school is not relevant."