More than 60 percent of urban charter schools in Massachusetts outpaced comparable schools in their cities on the most recent MCAS exams, and several ranked among the states highest performers among schools that primarily serve poor and minority children.
Statewide, however, charter schools collectively fared worse than traditional public schools on the tests, according to a Globe analysis of state Department of Education statistics. More than half -- 54 percent -- of charter schools were below average on math and English MCAS exams in 2003.
As the state Senate prepares this week to vote on a charter school moratorium, the Globe analysis underscores the gains charter schools in lower-income areas have made, and helps explain their appeal to parents in those communities. Of 26 urban charter schools across the state, 16 exceeded their local school systems overall MCAS performance in 2003, often by a signiﬁcant margin.
A main goal of charter schools nationally and in Massachusetts is giving urban families alternatives to low-performing local schools. While controversial, charter schools have proven highly popular in the Bay State, particularly in cities, home to most of the approximately 13,000 students on charter school waiting lists.
Governor Mitt Romney, who believes charter schools provide a good option for poor families, plans to veto any action that would derail charter schools. The debate over charter schools has intensified as charter school enrollment and spending have risen. Charter schools receive per-student payments from local districts for each student they enroll.
The test scores of charter schools like Roxbury Preparatory Charter School, the Academy of the Pacific Rim Charter School in Hyde Park, and Community Day Charter School in Lawrence ranked among the top handful of all public schools with students from similar socioeconomic backgrounds, according to an analysis of MCAS data by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education.
Senator Robert A. Antonioni, chairman of the Legislature's joint education committee, said the findings were "a good indication" that charters are meeting their mandate of giving urban youth a better chance at a quality education.
"To most of these students, there never was an alternative before," said Antonioni, who opposes the moratorium.
Senator Steven A. Tolman, a Brighton Democrat who supports the moratorium, said the Globe's findings confirmed his belief that many charter schools are doing good work. But he worries that the original idea of charters as laboratories for education reform has been lost, and that charters are instead hurting existing schools financially.
"I don't think these good ideas are being incorporated into other schools," Tolman said. "I really worry we're creating a two-tier school system."
Created by the 1993 Education Reform Act, charters are supposed to excel because they are free to design courses, hire staff, and control their budgets. In exchange for that freedom, the state reviews charters every five years and can close the schools that do not perform well academically. The state Board of Education has exercised that power once, in 2002, when it shut down the Lynn Community Charter School.
Charter school supporters said the findings about urban charters bolster their argument that broader educational choice and small, autonomous schools can lead to better student achievement.
"This is what happens when schools are given increased flexibility, and with that flexibility comes very high standards," said Marc Kenen, executive director of the Massachusetts Charter School Association.
But Paul Reville, executive director of the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy at Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth or MassINC, said the jury is still out on charters' effectiveness.
"I don't think the evidence on charter schools' educational achievement is conclusive," he said.
Critics note that charters as a group still trail their traditional school counterparts on state tests, yet they typically enroll lower percentages of limited-English speakers or children with significant disabilities.
The Globe reviewed five years of MCAS results and compared MCAS proficiency rates for charter school students in math and English with local and state averages in 39 of the 50 charter schools now open in Massachusetts. The analysis did not include 11 schools because they test fewer than 10 students, which excludes them from state Department of Education data.
Urban charter schools as a group also narrowly outperformed their local district schools the previous two years.
However, some urban charter schools ranked among the state's worst, even when compared with schools with similar demographics. At Benjamin Banneker Charter School in Cambridge, just 6 percent of the sixth grade achieved proficiency in math. No fourth-grader at Lowell Community Charter School achieved proficiency in math or English.
Some observers warn against equating MCAS scores with school success, and education officials caution against comparing charters with public schools because charter schools were created to be independent and innovative.
"To lump them all together is at odds with the basic charter school concept," said Kristin McIntosh, the education department's associate commissioner for charter schools.
Kevin Andrews is principal at the Neighborhood House Charter School in Dorchester, where last year 86 percent of the seventh-graders scored proficient or higher on the MCAS English exam. The school, pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, ranked third in a pool of 99 demographically similar schools, according to the business alliance's analysis. The Neighborhood school is smaller than a typical public school, with just 200 students overall and 22 students per class. Students get a lot of attention, sometimes working with more than one teacher in the same classroom.
Andrews sees the students' progress, and strides by other city charters, as testimony that children from all backgrounds can succeed in school if put in the right situation and pushed to do well.
"We don't necessarily have the best and the brightest," he said. "We take the weak, the poor, the hungry. We take these kids where they are, and we don't let that get in our way."
The approach seems to be popular: An assistant at the Neighborhood School said she receives 40 calls a week from parents wanting to enroll their child.
Around the corner from the Neighborhood School is the Patrick O'Hearn Elementary School, a public school where students with Down syndrome and severe developmental delays study beside children developing at the expected rate for their age. O'Hearn's consistently high MCAS scores are about even with Neighborhood's -- a bit lower in English but higher in math. O'Hearn, which includes pre-kindergarten through grade five, also has about 200 students, but its class sizes are larger than the charter's.
The school's principal, Bill Henderson, says it is the responsibility of traditional public schools to educate the neediest children. At O'Hearn, for example, a teacher's aide works almost full-time with one 8-year-old who has severe disabilities, uses a wheelchair, and is unable to speak.
"You just wouldn't see a child like this in a charter school," Henderson said. "We're competing for limited resources. If they are getting a different mix of students, then the formula is inherently unfair."
Nationally, charter school performance is decidedly mixed, said Chester E. Finn Jr., a charter school author and a former assistant US secretary of education.
"To hang a sign of `charter' out is a guarantee of nothing in particular when it comes to educational performance," he said.
Peter Schworm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org