School turnaround policy for Ohio districts, including Youngstown and Lorain, has attracted tremendous attention in recent months. While thatremains unsettled, another more positive turnaround story continues to unfold with the state’s public charter schools.
It’s no secret that Ohio charters have had a checkered track record since the first schools opened twenty years ago. Seeking to elevate quality, Ohio legislators enacted sweeping reforms—the most significant occurring in—that heighten accountability and ensure more responsible practices among schools and their sponsors (a.k.a. “authorizers”). Although these reforms are still relatively fresh, a rigorous released in February by CREDO points to among brick-and-mortar charters (their analysis ended with 2016–17 data).
Results from 2018–19 state report cards offer more encouraging signs that Ohio’s charter sector is righting itself in the wake of reform. It’s true that these school-level data cannot match the depth and rigor of CREDO, but they add supporting evidence about the sector’s recovery. (And stay tuned later this fall for a more in-depth look at results in our annual report-card review.)
Ohio’s charter schools are overwhelmingly clustered in the high-poverty urban districts known as the “Big Eight.” Of the state’s charters receiving conventional A–F ratings in 2018–19, 78 percent were located in these eight districts, with the remainder mostly situated in inner-ring suburbs and a few statewide e-schools. Because of their heavy concentration in the Big Eight, we at Fordham have long focused on the performance of charters in relation to district schools located in these cities. In our view, this is a reasonably fair comparison of schools serving children from similar backgrounds and one that explores whether charters offer superior public-school options relative to a student’s main alternative.
One of Ohio’s key performance indicators is its “value-added” measure that gauges the academic progress of students over time. Because the measure examines growth, rather than overall test scores, high-performing, high-poverty schools can and do earn top marks on value added. In contrast, schools serving predominately low-income students tend to struggle on proficiency measures due in part to well-documented achievement gaps. Sadly, that pattern continued in 2018–19, as the vast majority of Big Eight district and charter schools were assigned D’s and F’s on themeasure of proficiency (88 and 92 percent, respectively).
On the value-added measure, on the other hand, a higher percentage of Big Eight charter schools have earned A’s or B’s than their district counterparts. In 2018–19, a full third of charters received such ratings in comparison to 26 percent of Big Eight district schools. Conversely, a smaller fraction of charters received F’s on this measure (44 versus 58 percent). In the two years prior, Big Eight charters also outperformed their district peers by roughly similar margins.
Figure 1: Overall value-added ratings for Big Eight charter and district schools
Sources: Ohio Department of Education, Download Data (2018–19), and for prior years, my analyses of school ratings and . Note: In 2018–19, the number of Big Eight district schools was 411 and the number of Big Eight charter schools was 180. Both sectors had largely similar numbers of schools in the two prior years.
The figure above, however, doesn’t fully capture the improvement among Big Eight charter schools between 2017–18 and 2018–19. In fact, we see some slippage in the percentage of A-rated charters compared to the year prior, with an uptick of B’s. How can this be evidence of improvement? This shift is actually due to a small tweak in the state’s grading rules. Under state , schools’ value-added ratings are “demoted” based on low value added ratings (e.g., if a school received an F for students with disabilities). In prior years, Ohio implemented this rule by decreasing the component rating that combines the overall and subgroup results. But starting in 2018–19, the state began demoting the overall value-added rating, leading a few otherwise A-rated schools to receive B’s on this measure (the rule only affects those receiving a “preliminary A”).
Figure 2, therefore, shows the distribution of overall value-added ratings had the state had maintained the same grading rules for 2018–19. Big Eight charter schools still outperform their district counterparts. But unlike the figure above, an improvement at the top end of the distribution is now visible. If consistent rules had been applied, 24 percent of charters would’ve received an “A” compared to 20 percent in the year prior. Also notable is the jump in the fraction of Big Eight district schools receiving A’s—19 versus 13 percent in the year prior—perhaps consistent with the upticks in performance indexin several Big Eight districts.
Figure 2: Overall value-added ratings for Big Eight charter and district schools (modified results for 2018–19)
Note: This chart displays unofficial value-added ratings for 2018–19 had the state applied the same subgroup “demotion” rule as in prior years.
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Nearly everyone agrees that improving the educational outcomes of Ohio’s neediest children should be a top priority. But how to get there remains subject to great debate. Rigorousfrom cities across the nation continue to find that quality charter schools deliver strong academic gains for less advantaged students. Ohio has not traditionally been a hotbed of high-performing charters, but things are changing for the good—and state report card results show it. Great charter organizations like in Cleveland, and in Columbus, and in Dayton continue to expand and serve more students. Thanks to a recent increase in supplemental charter , further growth among quality charters is on the horizon.
Yet the numbers of low ratings, even on the more poverty-neutral value-added measure, across both Big Eight district and charter schools remind us of the long road ahead. No one can yet claim that all Ohio students have access to a world-class education. The good news, however, is that progress is underway. To maintain, or even accelerate, the momentum, policymakers need to keep challenging all schools—both district and charter—to help their students reach their full potential.
 The Big Eight are Akron, Canton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, and Youngstown.
 Of note, this does not refer to the more significant to the value-added rating system enacted via House Bill 166—the state budget bill—which passed in July 2019. Due to the October 2019 effective date of the legislation, those changes will be seen in September 2020 with the 2019–20 report cards.