Supporters can rightfully brag that, on average, Idaho’s public charter schools outperform traditional schools in several areas.
A 2019 Stanford University study confirms that.
But better overall scores don’t tell the whole story. Idaho charters also consistently rank among the state’s lowest performing schools.
A closer look at the data shines a light on the disparities, and reveals how a faction of Idaho’s charters bog down their overall performance — and fuel lingering debate inside the charter community over the benefits the schools bring to families.
The highs and lows of charter school performance
Idaho Education News has tracked student achievement in Idaho’s public charters since 2017. The numbers reveal impressive — and unsettling — realities inside the fast-growing sector.
Early reading. The latest scores from Idaho’s early reading test reveal that seven of the state’s top 10 performing school districts and charters were charters.
But so were seven of 10 schools at the bottom, with the number of students reading at grade level in these charters ranging from just 24 percent to 51 percent.
Similar trends have played out in past years. In the spring of 2019, charters rounded out the top five spots on the same test, which measures reading skills among K-3 students.
More than 90 percent of students at these schools were reading at grade level — an impressive haul, considering the state average of just under 70 percent, according to State Department of Education numbers.
The flipside: Four charters were among the five lowest performing schools. The number of students reading at grade level in these schools ranged from only 18 to 43 percent.
These and other low-performing charters dragged the average number of K-3 charter students reading at grade level down to just over 68 percent, two percentage points below the spring 2019 average among Idaho’s traditional schools.
ISAT reading proficiency. On average, students in Idaho’s charter schools outpaced their traditional-school peers on the reading section of the Idaho Standards Achievement Test, which schools administer each year to third- through eighth-graders and high school juniors.
Slightly more than 45 percent of charter students reached proficiency in 2019, the most recent year available for scores due to the pandemic, SDE numbers show. Average proficiency in Idaho’s traditional schools was lower, at 40.6 percent.
But the numbers again reveal wide disparities. Four charters nabbed the top five spots for proficiency, while three were among the five lowest performing schools. Average proficiency at each of these low-performing charters fell below 12 percent.
Math proficiency. Charters outpaced traditional schools in ISAT math proficiency, 57.8 percent to 51.6 percent.
Yet again, charters were among the state’s five lowest performing schools, with Jerome-based Heritage Academy posting 29.2 percent proficiency and Fort Hall’s Chief Tahgee Elementary Academy at 18.2 percent.
Graduation rates. Charters post some of the state’s highest and lowest high school graduation rates.
In 2019, 10 charters graduated more than 95 percent of their students, well above the state average of 81 percent.
But grad rates fell to below 40 percent in at least nine charters, bringing the charters’ overall 2019 graduation rate to 68.9 percent — more than 10 percentage points below the state average.
Recent outcomes line up with past investigations revealing disperate results in Idaho’s charters.
Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes reaffirmed the disparities in 2019. Tracking three years of achievement data on the National Assessment of Education Progress, CREDO detailed a range of highs and lows.
The study also reaffirmed previous data showing how the state’s charters largely underserve minority and poor students.
Virtual charters’ struggles
CREDO’s report aligned with another lingering trend: Idaho’s virtual schools bog down overall charter performance.
In 2018, EdNews found that Idaho’s 17 virtual schools fell behind their brick-and-mortar counterparts in nearly every measurable area. Charters account for 11 of the state’s online schools.
Looking at 2019 graduation rates, virtual charters rounded out three of the five bottom spots:
- Richard McKenna Online Alternative Charter: 20.9 percent.
- iSucceed Academy: 5.8 percent.
- Idaho Connects Online Alternative School: 2.5 percent.
English proficiency on the 2019 ISAT reveals a similar trend. Three of the five lowest performers were virtual charters:
- iSucceed: 11.9 percent.
- Idaho Virtual Education Partners: 11.1 percent.
- Another Choice Virtual Charter School: 10.7 percent.
CREDO researchers offered their own conclusion in their 2019 report: “It is the poor performance of online charter schools that drags down the overall charter impact on student academic growth.”
One outspoken and influential charter advocate called CREDO’s findings on virtual charters “ugly.”
“The ‘ugly’ … is that online charter school students in Idaho on average gain less over a year than do students who attend brick-and-mortar charter schools,” said Terry Ryan, CEO of statewide charter support group BLUUM.
Ryan has called numerous times for the state to take a more hardline approach to closing schools that struggle academically.
Yet talk of closing low-performing charters, including virtual schools, has been a source of heated debate and pushback in recent years.
Parents and students across the state rave about the enhanced flexibility virtual schools bring to kids.
Educators point to the schools’ demographic challenges. Idaho’s online schools serve a variety of unique and at-risk students:
- Suspended or pregnant teens.
- Students who are bullied or learn at varying rates.
- Students pursuing careers in sports or the arts.
“The challenges we face are not fully recognized,” said Kelly Edginton, principal of Idaho Virtual Academy, one of the state’s largest online charters.
Disclosure: Bluum and Idaho Education News are both funded by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation. The foundation does not influence Idaho EdNews editorial content.
“More choices, more challenges” is an in-depth look at the robust effort to expand Idaho charter schools. The series considers what the well-funded push means for Idaho families and leaders and how the state is adapting to the growth. EdNews data analyst Randy Schrader provided data and information for this series. The series, at a glance:
- Charters are among Idaho’s highest — and lowest —performing schools