There are much more subtle ways to fraudulently raise test scores than tampering with student test papers. One that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is the practice by many charter schools of improving their test scores through attrition. Up until recently, these charters have not been very upfront about this factor contributing to their success. With everything that these charters have at stake in preserving their reputations and their rich funders, I can understand why they might try to conceal what they’re doing. Of course they have the right to portray their business in the most favorable light possible. That’s what most businesses do. The reason that I’ve become so involved in uncovering the truth behind these successes is that these ruses have tricked politicians into believing that one of the big solutions in fixing education is to expand the influence of charter schools. Only states that agree to lift caps on charters were even eligible to apply to Obama’s Race To The Top initiative.
For years I’ve suspected that charters, even ones that claim to be ‘open enrollment,’ get a crop of students who are easier to educate than the neighborhood school whose students are selected by only geographic boundaries. I know that there have been studies that have compared the success of students who lost the lottery against those who won the lottery at KIPP and they have concluded that the kids who entered the lottery and lost hadn’t been as successful as their lucky peers despite having parents who were motivated enough to sign up for the lottery. These studies are not as convincing to me as the one I’d love to see — what were the 4th grade test scores of the students who entered the lottery vs. students who did not even enter the lottery. So the lottery, to me, is a form of cherry picking. Then, I suspect that many students who win the lottery are ‘counseled out’ of some charters before even starting there. This one is also tough to prove. Finally, and this one is something that I do have proof for, there is a large attrition rate at many of these schools. Some, I recently learned, have low attrition, but that is because the numerous students they lose are ‘replaced’ with other students — students, I suspect, who are ‘better’ in some way than the ones who left.
Up until very recently, most charter schools simply denied their attrition problem. I was frustrated by this because I ‘knew’ they were lying, just as a woman can ‘know’ that her husband is cheating on her. As I investigated several schools, I got the proof I needed. But, to take the cheating husband analogy a bit further. Getting ‘proof’ wasn’t enough for me. I wanted the charters to admit what they’ve done.
I’ve gotten at least five examples of people at charters acknowledging their attrition over the last few months. The most notable is KIPP’s own report card where, after saying that a school with high test scores and high attrition is not a great school, then admits that their attrition rate is 40% over four years (though they mask this number with some clever math.) Then in this article from a Florida newspaper a charter superintendent verifies their high attrition. In this New York Times article which was just published, an example of how charters counsel out kids is discussed.
I think that the ‘party line’ for charters, in the wake of all the evidence which is fairly easy to attain on the state websites is no longer to try to hide or deny their attrition. Instead, as you see in these articles, they have found a way to rationalize their attrition — to explain that it is a good thing! A place where I have seen this a lot is in some of the comments that have been left on my recent blog posts. In my post about expulsions from New Orleans charters, a reader identified as ‘dcchilin’ wrote
“I’ve worked in a high-performing charter, and yes, my school did expel some disruptive kids who were making it difficult for their peers to learn (or bringing drugs or weapons to school), and I’d do it again in a heartbeat to preserve a school culture where hard work and good behavior are the expectation for all.”
This was the first time I had seen anyone attempt to justify the attrition rather than deny it. More recently, there were a series of comments in my ‘Kipp on Trickin” post from a reader named Heather and more from one named Paula. E. Rat certainly held her own in debating Paula, who used a pretty strange analogy.
Thus, in the same way that violating the rules of air travel results in removing an offender from that space, to send a clear message that participating in air travel requires a certain level of responsibility, similarly, a child in a KIPP class who is removed and/or isolated for being disruptive is supposed to get the message (and in fact, most do), that s/he does not have the right to compromise anyone else’s learning, AND that s/he should be prioritizing her/his own learning as well.
The basic gist of these charter attrition defenders is that even if only 60% of the kids who start 5th grade at a 5-8 charter actually make it to graduation, it is still a good thing. For those 60%, they will have gotten a better education than they would have in their neighborhood school. For the 40% that didn’t make it, well, they’re no worse off than they would have been since they end up in the school they would have been assigned to if not for the charter school. It’s a win-tie situation. 60% win, 40% tie.
There are two big problems I have with this logic. The first one is that charters are only now starting to admit that this is happening. Some are still not admitting it since they have found a way around it by replacing students so the low attrition rate is misleading. Politicians still compare their scores to the scores of the neighborhood public schools who try to teach the kids who leave the charters and who can’t kick kids out (and who don’t even WANT to kick kids out. Look at the great last sentence of the New York Times article “Still, Robert O’Brien, who has been principal there for 14 years, says the most gratifying part of his work is with the children who lower his test scores.”) The other issue I have is that it is not really a win-tie situation. Some (maybe all) of those 40% that leave the charters are damaged by the experience. Winning a ‘lottery’ and then getting booted tells a kid that he’s such a loser that he can’t even get rich by winning a lottery. Getting kicked out of a school as a 5th or 6th grader is very hard for a kid. They start seeing themselves as not cut out for school and that can follow them in their own minds and it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. So anyone who says “Better to have KIPPed and lost than to never have KIPPed at all” might not be correct in all cases.
So even though some charters who can’t escape the indisputable proof that they are losing many students are now beginning to admit it, I am still not satisfied by their response. To complete my cheating husband analogy from before. If I proved my husband was cheating on me and then he finally came out and admitted it, that would not be enough. I would want two more things. I’d want him to also admit that what he did was a bad thing and also to promise that he won’t do it anymore. With these charter admissions, I got neither of those. They have no remorse whatsoever about doing this. They try to spin it so that it doesn’t seem so bad. And they do not even lie and promise that they will not do it again in the future.
Just as the Atlanta cheating scandal was big news around the country, I’m hopeful that one day the inflated charter test results because of attrition will be investigated. Unlike the cheating scandal, it seems like charter attrition is much easier to prove. All you’d need is the list of 5th graders and the list of 8th graders three years later. See how many of those 8th graders were originally 5th graders. Then look at the 4th grade test scores of the 8th graders that made it through and compare those to the 4th grade test scores of those who left. Give me access to the data, and I can prove everything I suspect in no time.