The Obama administration's recurring policy emphasis on high-performing charter schools begs the obvious question: how do you identify a high-performing charter school? That is a crucially important policy question because any evaluation strategy that incorrectly identifies charter school performance could have negative effects on the economically and/or academically disadvantaged students who frequently attend charter schools. If low-performing schools are mislabeled and allowed to persist or encouraged to expand, then students may be harmed directly. If high-performing schools are driven from the market by misinformation, then students will lose access to programs and services that can make a difference in their lives.

Most of the scholarly analysis to date has focused on comparing the performance of students in charter schools to that of similar students in traditional public schools (TPS). By design, that research measures charter school performance only in relative terms. Charter schools that outperform similarly situated, but low performing, TPSs have positive effects, even if the charter schools are mediocre in an absolute sense.

This analysis describes strategies for identifying high-performing charter schools by comparing charter schools with one another. We begin by describing salient characteristics of Texas charter schools. We follow that discussion with a look at how other researchers across the country have compared charter school effectiveness with TPS effectiveness.

We then present several metrics that can be used to identify high-performing charter schools. Those metrics are not mutually exclusive—one could easily justify using multiple measures to evaluate school effectiveness—but they are also not equally informative. If the goal is to measure the contributions that schools are making to student knowledge and skills, then a value-added approach like the ones highlighted in this report is clearly superior to a levels-based approach like that taken under the current accountability system.

Key Take Away Points

  • “How do you identify a high-performing charter school?” is a crucially important policy question, one that most of the existing literature cannot answer.

  • The official indicators—TEA accountability ratings and AYP status—are particularly weak measures of school performance.

  • The FAST composite progress score is the best available indicator of charter school quality in Texas. Unfortunately, it is not available for the large share of OE charter schools that are AECs of Choice.

  • Texas is currently in the midst of a transition from one standardized testing regime (TAKS) to another (the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR). This transition creates a golden opportunity for policymakers to incorporate value-added modeling into the official accountability system.

Author Biography

Lori L. Taylor is an Associate Professor in the Bush School of Government and Public Service; a Program Area Leader for School Finance, Facilities and Organizations in the State of Texas Education Research Center at Texas A&M; and an Adjunct Associate Professor in A&M’s Department of Economics. She also currently serves as a Research Affiliate of the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University. Dr. Taylor has written extensively on variations in the cost of education and has served as a consultant on school finance issues for a variety of legislative committees and state and federal agencies. She recently served as an expert consultant for the Texas Comptroller’s Financial Allocation Study for Texas (FAST), and developed the Comparable Wage Index for the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). She is a former member of the American Education Finance Association’s Board of Directors, and of the NCES’ Finance Technical Review Panel. Paige C. Perez is a doctoral student in Educational Administration at Texas A&M University. Her focus area is education policy with interests in teacher quality and teacher turnover, dual language and bilingual education, and school choice, including charter schools. In 2010, Paige presented her paper entitled “The Current State of Dual Language Programs in the United States and Recommendations for Future Policies and Implementation” at the National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE) conference. She has worked on research projects with the State of Texas Education Research Center at Texas A&M University. Paige has a Master’s degree in Public Service and Administration from the Bush School of Government and Public Service and a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Spanish, both from Texas A&M University. Prior to graduate school, she became alternatively certified and served as a fourth grade bilingual teacher for two years.