Upping its campaign to root out what it views as its lowest performing schools, the California Charter Schools Association last week criticized a San Jose school district for allowing a charter school to open two more campuses next year.
“We cannot have an honest discussion about education reform and increasing accountability and then continue to allow chronically low-performing charters to replicate,” Jed Wallace, president and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA), said in a statement. CCSA is a membership organization representing many of the state’s 1,300 charter schools.
CCSA singled out Latino College Prep Academy, a 12-year-old high school charter with low scores on state standardized tests. The school serves about 380 primarily low-income English learners in East San Jose and has ties to National Hispanic University. Last month, the East Side Union High School District gave Latino College Prep conditional approval to expand after no one, including CCSA, testified against it.
CCSA has taken the lead nationally in trying to cull its own ranks. It, like other charter advocates, has been stung by national studies concluding that charter schools on average perform no better than district schools they compete with. However, CCSA’s analyses found that California charters take the shape of a “U” on a graph, with disproportionate numbers of very high ranking and very low ranking schools – “the Achilles’ heel of the charter movement,” Wallace calls them – when compared to API scores for district schools. As a result, CCSA has been outspoken in urging districts and county offices of education, as authorizers of charters, not to renew, and even to revoke, the charters of those schools that don’t meet minimal thresholds on the Academic Performance Index or API.
The increased attention on low performance is working, Wallace said. Of 17 charter schools that closed last year with enough data to analyze, eight were in the bottom 10 percent of performance on state tests, and 15 were in the bottom quarter, he said.
Leadership College Prep “has missed the minimum performance benchmarks that (Association) members created to identify persistently under-performing charter schools. As a result, replicating a failing model is not in the best interest of the students and the communities they wish to serve,” Wallace said.
In December, the Association called for revoking the charters of six schools, four whose charters were up for renewal and two schools that two years earlier it had recommended for non-renewal: Leadership High School, one of the state’s older charters, in San Francisco, and West Sacramento Early College Prep Charter School, a grade 6-12 school affiliated with the UC Davis School of Education. Both serve low-income minority students.
In each case, the schools’ administrators defended their school’s work and dismissed the criteria that the Association used as narrow and arbitrary. Test scores failed to account for the progress that the schools had made with difficult-to-educate students, they said.
“This is about equity for students who are not otherwise receiving the opportunity we offer,” Ed Alvarez, Latino College Prep’s CEO, wrote in an email to the Association.
CCSA created its minimum criteria for renewal, which it has now applied to replication, in 2009 and updated it last year. To meet the criteria, a school has to meet at least one of three standards; Latino College Prep failed to do so, according to CCSA’s scorecard:
- At least a 744 API score last year, which is above the bottom 25th percentile for all California public schools; Latino College Prep’s score in 2012-13 was 679.
- A three-year API growth of at least 50 points; Latino College Prep averaged only 3 points.
- Fall at least within the average range of comparable schools under a metric that CCSA developed, called the Similar Schools Measure. It’s a tool that compares each school’s performance on the API to a prediction based on how schools with similar demographic characteristics perform. Latino College Prep performed at below or far below the prediction for each of three years.
East Side Union’s approval
CCSA’s minimum academic standards are higher than state law requires for a charter renewal, which customarily occurs every five years. Besides minimum academic requirements, the law allows a district to renew a charter if it can show that students perform at least as well as those in district schools that they’d otherwise attend. It was on this basis, said East Side Union Superintendent Chris Funk, that the district recommended conditional approval of the expansion. In order to open, the two new schools must have a minimum enrollment and receive approval from the University of California for all 15 courses students must pass for admission to a UC or CSU campus; four courses currently aren’t UC-certified – another fault that CCSA criticized.
“I am not a huge fan of using API, especially for high schools, but the law is clear and we followed the guidelines,” Funk said. “Latino College Prep is serving kids of color and English learners. They fell in between our (the district’s) lowest and middle performers. If I point a finger at them, I will point a finger at what we do.”
As a practical matter, the Santa Clara County school board approves most charters on appeal, and so East Side also factored that likelihood into consideration, Funk said; this way, the new schools will remain under East Side’s jurisdiction.
Alvarez says that 86 percent of students arriving in 9th grade at Latino College Prep are English learners, a ratio that drops to 63 percent in upper grades because students test out and no longer are classified as English learners. Yet more than 90 percent of students graduate from the school. Forty percent were accepted last year into a University of California or California State University school, he said. (The latter is a self-reported statistic.)
Alvarez said that using the API score is misleading because many of 9th graders arrive behind grade level and aren’t performing well until they’re juniors. And as seniors, they don’t take tests that count toward the API.
“We don’t fit within the metrics of CCSA,” Alvarez said. “We had a long discourse with them but they never visited our school. They don’t understand what is happening in our classroom and the resources we applied for English learners to be successful.”
“Beating a dead horse”?
Harold Levine, dean of the UC Davis School of Education and president of the board of West Sacramento Early College Prep (West Sac Prep), makes a similar argument with regard to West Sac Prep. Two years ago, CCSA recommended it and nine other schools not be granted a charter extension. After its charter was renewed and the school didn’t improve, CCSA recommended in December that West Sac Prep’s charter be revoked.
Jointly administered by Washington Unified in West Sacramento, UC Davis School of Education and Sacramento City College, West Sac Prep is a small school serving students in grades 6-12 in an area “where there is a lot of dysfunctionality in students’ lives: family issues, drugs, gangs. There is real poverty here,” Levine said.
The school employs a mental health counselor. It has multi-age groupings and focuses on project-based learning and critical thinking in line with the new Common Core standards. It has a concurrent enrollment arrangement with its community college partner and “forces these kids to take responsibility for their own learning,” Levine said.
He can’t understand why CCSA is demanding his school’s charter revocation, he says, when the state is implementing a new school funding and accountability system that’s moving away from determining a school’s worth by test scores alone. West Sac Prep will soon begin designing a new accountability system, consistent with the new priorities listed in the new state accountability tool, the Local Control and Accountability Plan, that focuses on the goals of career and college readiness, Levine said this week.
“The state is looking at broader measures with new (Common Core) tests,” Levine said, “so our reaction is, ‘Why is CCSA still beating a dead horse?’”
Wallace said that CCSA supports the state’s new broader range of indicators of student performance, but they’re not in place yet. “And while we look forward to Smarter Balanced (the new Common Core tests), we must use whatever system is in place now until the new system comes on line.”
Referring to Latino College Prep, CCSA Senior Vice President Elizabeth Robitaille said that the best predictor for replication of a charter is its past track record of performance. “We have no confidence that the school will excel.”