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After 35 years in public education as a high school English teacher and university administrator, I began my second life as a freelance writer, winning San Diego Society of Professional Journalist awards for my opinion columns in the former San Diego daily North County Times and the San Diego Free Press.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Charter schools fail to measure up

For San Diego's North County Times

In the 1993 film "Groundhog Day," Bill Murray plays a jaded TV weatherman, condemned to relive the day of the rodent each day until he has a change of heart. I feel like that hapless misanthrope each day that California's school test scores are released.

Like the daily replay of the Sonny and Cher song awakening Murray's character each morning, the news of test scores is as predictable: a slight improvement over last year and no change in the achievement gap separating students by ethnicity and family income.

Schools are ranked by comparing their test scores with all other schools in the state and with those enrolling students with similar characteristics. A couple of weeks ago, we learned that more than half of North County's schools rank above average of similar schools, the same as last year. That says nothing more than that we're keeping up with the Joneses, implying the Joneses are to be envied.

I was struck by how schools with the highest statewide rankings often have unusually low similar-school rankings and that charter schools do no better than other public schools.

Take, for example, Torrey Pines, San Dieguito Academy, Carlsbad and LaCosta Canyon high schools. Ranking from the top 10 percent to the 80th percentile statewide, they drop to the 50th percentile down to the bottom 10 percent of similar schools.

Vista, Oceanside and El Camino high schools, on the other hand, range from the 80th to the 90th percentile of similar schools and from the 50th to 70th percentile statewide.

San Marcos and Mission Hills high schools have the most impressive rankings. With larger shares of low-income, nonwhite, and English-learner students than districts in wealthier communities, they rank in the top 10 percent of similar schools and at the 90th percentile statewide.

North County has 17 charter schools. They rank from the 90th percentile to the bottom 10 percent statewide and from the top 10 percent to the bottom 10 percent of similar schools. The two outliers are Escondido's Heritage, a site-based charter, which ranks in the top 10 percent of similar schools and at the 90th percentile statewide, and Vista's Mountain Peak, a home-school charter ranking in the bottom 10 percent in both statewide and similar school rankings.

The majority of local charters rely on home schooling. None of them rank in the top 10 percent of schools statewide.

With few exceptions, test scores show North County charters fall short of their mandate for measurable results for improved learning, especially for underserved populations. Most of them enroll children of relatively well-to-do families, dissatisfied with traditional public schools for reasons that go beyond academics.

And that won't lead to better public schools.

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