Lofty claims by charters? States say, 'prove it'

Until recently, there hasn't been much information available to see if charter schools are living up to their claims. That's about to change. State boards of education are beginning to grapple with the issue of accountability for charter schools. Massachusetts now requires charters to develop an accountability contract, including annual site visits and evidence that the school's academic program is a success. Charter schools that don't produce good results will be closed down, according to the Massachusetts Department of Education. Last month's release of statewide high-stakes test scores was a shock to some charter schools in the Bay State. For example, scores at the Boston Renaissance School, one of the most celebrated charter schools in the United States, ranked in the bottom 10 percent of the state. Other charters ranked near or at the top. "Charter schools are still not very far removed from the regular schools in terms of how they teach," says Robert Gaudet, a senior research consultant at the Donahue Institute at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, and one of the founders of the Renaissance School. He adds that "86 percent of the outcome on the new test in Massachusetts can be explained by the demographics of the communities," citing a study he just completed. Charter schools in California are not yet being held accountable for improving the academic achievement of their students, according to the UCLA Charter School Study, released last month. Researchers blame "lack of a consistent state-assessment system." "Charter schools said they would be more accountable.... The problem is the vagary of charter proposals and lack of political will to hold these schools accountable," says Amy Stuart Wells, the lead researcher. Gov. Gray Davis (D) has promised to make education a top priority. California has 16 percent of charter schools nationwide.

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