Illinois elementary charter school students made more academic gains than students in comparable district-run schools, according to a new report from Stanford University. Latino charter students posted the most impressive results, in math. Yet there are plenty of caveats to be gleaned from the report’s other findings, especially for African American students, who continued to fare worst academically in both traditional schools and charters.

The study expands on a previous, much-cited 2009 report that looked at Chicago charter schools–the vast majority of those in Illinois–as well as charters in another 16 states and found that the city’s charters performed better overall. Both reports are part of ongoing research on charter school effectiveness at CREDO, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, which plans to publish a full study covering 26 states next week. (The reports can be found at CREDO’s website.)

The gains touted in the latest report, which covers 2008 through 2012, are statistically significant in research terms, albeit modest in the real world. On average, Illinois elementary charter school students gained two additional weeks of learning in reading and one additional month of learning in math over the course of the school year, according to the study. And only about one in five charters performed significantly better in reading than traditional schools.

Those findings might not be striking, especially to charter critics. Andrew Broy of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools acknowledges that. “One thing revealed by this report is that we don’t have enough high-performing schools of any type in Chicago,” he says. “We view charters much more as part of the solution [than critics do]. But that doesn’t hide the fact that we all have to do better by our students.”

Chicago’s older charter schools drove much of the improvement. Newer charters have a positive effect, but less than in the 2009 study, according to Dev Davis, research manager at CREDO. However, the new report does not provide breakdowns for the two groups.

The study used the same methodology as the 2009 report, comparing reading and math scores for Illinois elementary charter school students, in grades 3 through 8, with a “virtual twin”–a demographically similar student from a traditional district-run school that the charter student would have attended. (The report included 65 charter campuses and 18,689 students.)

Other findings:

— In reading, 21 percent of charters performed worse than traditional schools, while 20 percent did better and 59 percent showed no difference. In math, 21 percent of charters did worse, 37 percent performed better and 42 percent showed no difference.

— Black and Hispanic students continued to lag behind white students in reading, and received “no significant benefit or loss from charter school attendance” compared to students in traditional schools

— Latinos in charter schools made far more significant gains in math than in traditional schools, even when compared to white students, effectively erasing the achievement gap in the subject.

— Low-income charter students made slightly more gains in reading than low-income students in traditional schools, but had similar performance in math.

“Clearly, there is room to grow,” says Broy. “We have substantial achievement gaps, especially with black students, poor students. The same challenges as faced by public schools are faced by charters.”

The study also found that students in their second and third years at a charter performed better than new, first-year charter students. English-language learners in charter and traditional schools had similar performance.

The study found evidence that charter students were more likely to hold students back, and retained students made stronger gains in charters than in traditional schools. Still, the study says that the difference can’t be considered significant, since retained students are a small group whose academic performance varied widely.

Lorraine is the executive editor of The Chicago Reporter. Email her at

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