Just how well Arizona's charter schools are educating students remains a muddy picture, despite a national study released this week that concluded students in loosely regulated charter schools in other states perform poorly.
The study fails to offer clear data about student progress at Arizona's nearly 500 charter schools, but it does cast doubt on the idea that the charter movement's more autonomous, free-market approach can produce better learning in the classroom.
The study compared scores in states with carefully monitored charters with scores in states with loosely regulated charters, said Celia Lose, spokeswoman for the American Federation of Teachers, which conducted the analysis. The study used fourth-grade math and reading scores on the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test given to a sampling of students in every state and known as the nation's report card.
In Michigan and Texas, where charter schools are loosely regulated, charter students lagged far behind their public school district peers. Charter students performed about the same as their district peers in California and Colorado, where charters are more carefully regulated. The study also showed that the gap between the test scores of children living in poverty and the higher scores of their wealthier peers remained at both types of schools.
Lose said it deals a blow to the core charter-school philosophy that freeing schools from red tape will allow students to thrive.
Arizona charter schools are recognized as the most autonomous and loosely regulated in the country, but there was little difference in scores between the state's charter schools and its traditional schools. The sample of Arizona charter students used in the study, less than 200, was too small and the difference in scores too negligible to be useful, said Howard Nelson, a researcher who co-authored the report.
"You can't make any statistically reliable conclusion," Nelson said.
Vicki Murray, education analyst with the Goldwater Institute, a Phoenix-based conservative policy group, downplayed the analysis, calling it a limited, one-year snapshot.
"Longitudinal analysis shows that charter school students tend to start out behind," Murray said, "but quickly catch up to, and even surpass, their traditional-school peers."
Charter schools are businesses owned by corporations or individuals who have contracted with the state and are exempt from some laws that govern district schools. For example, charter schools do not have to hire licensed teachers.
It has been difficult for researchers to draw conclusions about the general performance of Arizona's 75,000 charter school students because the schools vary widely. For example, Arizona released its 2004 Stanford 9 scores Monday, and in the school rankings, charter schools dominated both the top 20 and the bottom 20. Just this year, studies have drawn sharply different conclusions about the academic achievement of charter students:
? In March, the Goldwater Institute funded a study that found charter students started with lower test scores but achieved slightly higher annual growth after three years. Charter students outperformed their peers in elementary schools but evened out with district students in middle grades and fell slightly behind district students in high school.
? In May, Arizona State University researcher Gene Glass concluded that the state had too little data available to draw conclusions about the performance of charter students.
? In June, a Progressive Policy Institute study concluded that Arizona charter schools needed regulation that would make it tougher to own a school, more closely monitor student achievement, and shut down schools where students were not performing.
The entire American Federation of Teachers study is at www.aft.org.