Charter-school students are performing no better in math and reading than their peers at regular public schools and by some measures are doing worse, according to a new report.

Share story

WASHINGTON — Charter-school students are performing no better in math and reading than their peers at regular public schools and by some measures are doing worse, according to a report released yesterday by an independent, congressionally mandated research group.

The survey by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which describes itself as “the nation’s report card,” showed 58 percent of fourth-grade students in charter schools performed at a basic level in reading, compared with 62 percent in traditional public schools. When results were adjusted for race, traditional public schools in the survey still did slightly better, but that margin was deemed statistically insignificant. Low-income students at regular public schools generally outperformed charter-school counterparts.

The study is perhaps the most authoritative evaluation of charter schools to date. It is politically controversial because the charter-school movement was established to provide poor and minority students an alternative to low-performing public schools. Public-school advocates pointed to the results as evidence that many charter schools have not lived up to their promise of significantly raising academic achievement.

Education Secretary Rod Paige, a supporter of charter schools and other forms of school choice, said the NAEP study “should not be used as a red flag by those with an agenda to stop the charter-school movement in its tracks.” He said charter schools tend to serve “students whom the traditional public-school system left behind years ago.”

Catering to more than 1 million students nationwide, charter schools are part of public-school districts and are paid for by taxpayers but operate under independent boards with considerable academic autonomy.

Unlike most private schools and many voucher schools, charter schools must participate in the same kind of accountability studies, based on standardized tests, as traditional public schools. The NAEP report looked at a representative sample of more than 3,000 students in 150 charter schools, comparing their performance to nearly 190,000 traditional public-school students.

The study suggested a slight edge for regular public schools among students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, a standard measure of poverty. Sixty-two percent of regular public-school fourth-graders in this category performed at a basic level in math, compared with 53 percent in charter schools, a statistically meaningful difference.

“If our much-maligned public schools are failing, then charter schools … are failing, too,” said Bella Rosenberg, assistant to the president of the American Federation of Teachers. She said charter schools seemed to be doing a poorer job of educating low-income and special-education students than regular public schools.

Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, a pro-charter advocacy group, said the NAEP statistics did not tell “the full story” about charter schools, which tend to recruit a disproportionate number of disadvantaged students. She described the results as “a statistical dead heat” and pointed to private studies that suggest “the longer kids are in charter schools, the better they do.”

Both sides agree charter schools and traditional public schools vary widely in quality, and further research is necessary.