Most charter school students in suburban Boston performed better on last spring’s MCAS tests compared with students in other, traditional schools in their hometowns, but some are struggling in math, according to the latest batch of test scores.
The Globe reviewed seventh-, eighth-, and 10th-grade MCAS proficiency rates in English and math from 20 charter schools in cities and towns across Greater Boston. Most charter schools did better overall than the community in which they are based.
In Lawrence, the Community Day Charter Public School easily bested the city’s troubled public school system.
On the South Shore, charter schools mostly did well on the English tests, but had some struggles in math, with Foxborough Regional Charter a prime example. The well-respected school had some of the top 10th-grade scores in the state, but its seventh- and eighth-grade students fell short of the state median in math, and as a result showed mixed results compared with Foxborough’s public schools.
And west of Boston, the Advanced Math and Science Academy Charter School in Marlborough outpaced not just many schools in the region, but also statewide.
When compared with their performance on the 2011 MCAS tests, the charter schools had varied success. Focusing on the percentage of students who scored either advanced or proficient, about a third of the 20 charter schools surveyed by the Globe did about the same as a year ago, a third did somewhat better, and a third somewhat worse.
Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said a comparison of charter schools with traditional schools is unfair, since charter schools can gain an advantage by weeding out underachieving students.
“It’s the quality of the cherry-picked students that gives charter schools the advantage in many cases,” he said. “They don’t have special-education kids in the same complexity and number as the general-sending districts. . . . They send their troubled students back to the sending districts or counsel them out, or they don’t recruit them in the first place. It’s absolutely a function of skillfully recruiting the students who are higher achievers.”
Charter school advocates insist they aren’t keeping only the best students, and they say other factors are at work.
“Generally charters offer longer school days and school years, so there’s more time in the classroom for children,” said Dominic Slowey, spokesman for the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association.
He called Koocher’s arguments “tired.”
“Our enrollment is determined by random lottery and so we can’t control our enrollment,” said Slowey. “We also can’t push kids out. That would be illegal.”
Charter schools are public schools authorized by the Education Reform Act of 1993. They have flexibility that public districts don’t have, such as the ability to hire nonunion teachers, but they also have tougher accountability standards and must demonstrate success within five years or risk losing their state charter.
Bruce Bean, data manager for the Community Partners Initiative of Lawrence, which is affiliated with Community Day, analyzes data for the charter school association and other clients.
He crunched the numbers for grades 7, 8, and 10, using percentages of students scoring proficient or better in English and math. He found, as in 2011, that most charter school students statewide did better than counterparts in their sending districts by a healthy margin, on average.
Bean said part of that can be attributed to the strict accountability of charter schools required by the state. The state closes charter schools that aren’t doing well, he said.
Asked whether charter schools are selecting more motivated families whose children often are better students, he responded that the demographics he has analyzed show the same patterns in charter schools and traditional public schools.
“It is a lottery,” said Bean. “I guess somewhere in the kids’ life somebody had to say ‘I want to fill out a form, an application form,’ but other than that you’re getting pretty much the same demographics that you get in other schools.”
In Marlborough, the Advanced Math and Science Academy outperformed the city’s public schools, and it also outperforms most schools in the state. It was one of only 15 schools statewide that saw 100 percent of 10th-graders pass both English and math this year.
But even at that school, some students in the seventh grade are struggling with the math MCAS. Only 69 percent scored advanced or proficient, which is above the state median of 51 percent, but still prompted a note to parents.
“We’re analyzing the data now as we speak,” principal Jay Sweeney said last week.
“We had a similar occurrence a few years back and looked at the data and rectified that. It’s a dip that’s there. I can’t tell you why.”
He said the reason the school usually does well on the MCAS tests is because teachers try to go far beyond the state’s requirements.
“We’ve developed a curriculum that is not driven by state standards but by our own standards,” said Sweeney. “We don’t teach to a test. We’re doing things well above that.”
Foxborough Regional Charter draws largely from Brockton, Attleboro, and Norton, with only about 10 percent of its students from Foxborough, according to Mark Logan, executive director and superintendent of the school.
Still, the school missed the state median in seventh-grade English and seventh- and eighth-grade math. He said those students have struggled for a few years and have made tremendous gains, even though those classes have higher numbers of special-education children than other grades.
“We also looked at our curriculum and there was some misalignment with what the cohort had been learning at certain times, so we revamped that,” he said.
In Lawrence, the contrast was stark. At the Community Day Charter Public School, 95 percent of seventh-graders scored either advanced or proficient on the MCAS in English, and 86 percent of the class did as well in math on this year’s tests. The corresponding numbers for eighth-graders were 70 percent in English and 75 percent in math.
Lawrence public schools have been troubled for years, and last year the state voted to place the district in receivership, taking over its finances and academics.
Lawrence as a district, which includes three middle schools, scored significantly lower than Community Day on both tests in both grades. Only 45 percent of seventh-grade students made it into the advanced or proficient category categories on the English test, and just 20 percent of them did as well in math. Similarly, eighth-grade students scored in the higher categories 54 percent of the time in English and 19 percent of the time in math.
“Community Day Charter School has closed the achievement gap with 95 percent Hispanic kids,” said Sheila Balboni, executive director of the group that runs the school. “Our kids are doing better than what the census terms as white kids in the state of Massachusetts.”
She credits the success to teachers that use data effectively to individualize their approach, as well as solid professional development and mentoring for teachers.
Jeffrey C. Riley, the Lawrence superintendent/receiver appointed by the state, said he thinks Lawrence can learn from charters.
“We’re very impressed with the work being done at Community Day — so impressed we welcomed them into the district this year as one of several external partners featured in our turnaround plan,” he said in an e-mailed statement. “We look forward to seeing similar results in the future’’ for the city’s school system.