Charter School Data Shows Gains for Elementary School Students in Milwaukee – but Effects Trail Off in High School

by Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

Milwaukee’s charter schools outperform the regular public school standard when it comes to reading – but these returns appear to diminish as students progress, according to state data

Milwaukee’s charter schools have been a topic of discussion lately in the face of educational reform across Wisconsin. Earlier in the month, we have covered the economic backgrounds of the students that attend these schools. We have also examined the educational trends behind reading scores in the city’s independent 2R charter schools. It showed that these schools – which are authorized by either the city of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee rather than the city’s school board and enjoy more autonomy than their counterparts – produce greater educational returns than the regular public school average.

When you expand this scope to reading across all public charter schools, this result holds true in elementary schools. However, these results regress as students get older and advance to high school. While charter schools hold an edge over the city’s regular school students when looking at students scoring “basic” or better in core reading concepts, these traditional schools are more likely to have students scoring towards the higher end of the metric in both high school and middle school.

The city’s independent 2R charter schools outperformed regular charter school students at fourth grade, though not by a significant amount. Charter schools, as a whole, outperformed their regular school MPS counterparts at all observed grades when accounting for students scoring “basic” and higher. However, when the bar is set at “proficient” or better, students in traditional public schools recorded a stronger score.

In grade 10, the only representative 2R school, Tenor High School, outgained the regular charter school average, especially at the higher levels of achievement. However, since this sample size is limited to just one school, it’s difficult to make a significant comparison between the two charter types.

The metric used to compare student performance comes from the state’s Department of Public Instruction. It measures outcomes in reading on a pair of tests – the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination (WKCE) and the Wisconsin Alternate Assessment for Students with Disabilities (WAASwD). Combined, these are referred to as the Wisconsin Student Assessment System (WSAS). While these exams are a poor indicator of value-added information for students, they do allow us to made school-to-school comparisons within a district relatively well.

This report deals with reading results across three different grades. In elementary schools, a fourth-grade score was chosen. A sixth-grade mark was used to gauge middle school progress and a 10th grade score was chosen for high schools.

These results show that students in the city’s charter schools are demonstrating stronger learning skills than their regular public school classmates. However, these data also suggest that the city’s charter institutions may not be as effective in higher grades than they are in elementary schools. Furthermore, even with this improvement, it is important to note that these scores still rank amongst the worst in the state. In fact, recently released NAEP results suggest that Milwaukee is regressing when it comes to literacy in its public schools.

These results from the WSAS are observational. That means that they cannot tell us why students between these schools are performing in this manner. However, they do paint a telling picture of just how the children in these schools are performing. Students in a different, charter-driven environment from the traditional public school are outscoring their colleagues, particularly at a younger age. While this effect is reduced as students grow up, it’s an encouraging sign for Milwaukee’s charter schools, even though these test results trail the statewide averages.

At a time when Milwaukee’s educational system is posting stagnant returns when it comes to student achievement, this puts some hope back in the city’s public school system. The state has recently authorized the ability to sell vacant MPS buildings – something that could only have been done with Milwaukee School Board approval in the past. This could open opportunities for more of these schools, schools that educate more economically disadvantaged students and often post better reading scores, to operate within city limits. The upcoming arrival of Rocketship Schools – an independent charter that has seen strong successes in California – will provide another strong option for Milwaukee’s families.

The results are encouraging. However, there is still much work to be done. The next decade will provide a strong litmus test of how effective these schools can be. The differentiation between regular, non-instrumentality, and independent 2R charter schools could play a key role in showing what methods and missions work best in Milwaukee’s classrooms. Deeper looks into changing the culture of failure within the city’s high schools – across all schools – will also pay dividends. The end goal will be to provide a new layer of quality education in Wisconsin’s urban center. When that happens, the city’s children will be better prepared for the future than ever before.

Data for Milwaukee’s Independent 2R Charter Schools:

Data for Milwaukee’s other Charter Schools: