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Additional Measures of Success: Lessons from Chicago's Charter High Schools
February 2005
By Elizabeth Evans

In an era of increased focus on student achievement and school accountability, charter schools, and all public schools, need to be vocal about the many meaningful ways to measure success. Standardized state assessments are a valuable gauge of school effectiveness and undoubtedly the most widely used tool for measuring student achievement. While charters are committed to increasing test scores, we should strive to prove our success through others measures as well, including the critical but often over-looked high school graduation rates.

Charter schools are at the core of Chicago's "Renaissance 2010," the city's historic school choice-based education reform project. Renaissance 2010 is intended to create 100 new schools, including replications of some of the city's highly successful existing charter schools as well as new charter, contract, and district-operated "performance schools." In a state with exceptionally low caps on the total number of charters allowed, Renaissance 2010 is a groundbreaking public policy effort. It, therefore, has attracted intense public scrutiny. As such, charter advocates must be prepared to actively preach the bible of charter success. Having more measures will strengthen our hand by allowing us to paint a fuller picture of our positive track record and enabling us to address our shortcomings.

The University of Chicago's Consortium on Chicago School Research recently issued a study examining graduation rates for all of Chicago's public high schools. The report sheds light on the general topic of school effectiveness and raises important questions about the graduation rates of Chicago's traditional public high schools: while the district claims 71 percent of its students graduate, the report says it's only 54 percent. This discrepancy is clearly a matter of concern, but whether the actual number is 71 percent, 54 percent, or somewhere in between, we should be alarmed. Graduation rates are a barometer of how schools relate to students and how valuable students consider a high school education and diploma. The news is not good.

There is, however a bright spot. Though their student populations mirror those of district schools, Chicago's charter high schools have considerably higher daily attendance rates and almost universally higher graduation rates. Chicago's charter high schools also have lower truancy rates, mobility rates, and annual dropout rates than CPS' system-wide averages. All of these indicators suggest that students in charter schools see reason--and are motivated--to be there. The question is why?

By law, public charter schools have a greater degree of flexibility and autonomy than traditional schools. Charter school leaders have used this freedom to offer longer school days, extended school years, and a broad array of enrichment activities during the summer and after school. As importantly, Chicago's charter high schools have set high expectations and given students more personal attention through smaller classes and schools, more counselors, and more special support services. Finally, these charter high schools have been largely community-driven and have found creative and meaningful ways to involve parents in school activities and governance.

Nationwide, high school improvement has proven to be among the most difficult pieces of education reform. Chicago's charter high schools have much to teach us. We should use these lessons to continuously improve charter schooling while finding ways to apply them to traditional schools as well. If having a lower counselor-student ratio works at charter schools, let's start talking about how to bring that to bear across the district. If more flexible schedules allow schools to craft calendars that better meet students' needs, let's start working on making such freedoms commonplace. And if charter schools have found a way to engage and hold onto their students, let's share these strategies as widely as possible.

We at INCS hope Renaissance 2010 sparks more schools of all stripes that help all of our students accomplish great things. We must also learn from schools when they find strategies that work. Paying close attention to a wide range of measures of school success including graduation rates, student mobility, and community engagement will ensure that we don't miss important lessons.

Elizabeth A. Evans is Executive Director of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools

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