Reading scores: Idaho charters see high highs and low lows

Middle school students study in a socially distanced classroom at Elevate Academy in Caldwell. Elevate, a charter, reopened on June 1, 2020 during the pandemic. Sami Edge/Idaho Education News

Recent scores from Idaho’s early reading test provide a snapshot of what national research observes and a top charter official expect: a wide range of results among charter schools.

Numbers from the Idaho Reading Indicator show that this spring, charter schools were overrepresented among the top — and bottom — performers on the test. Seven of the top 10 performing school districts and charters, by share of students at or above grade level, were charters, but so were seven of the bottom 10. The top performer was charter Gem Prep Online, and the bottom performer was Peace Valley Charter School in Boise.

It’s an unscientific snapshot of one test, evaluating one age range on one academic skill, but the share of charters at the top and bottom of the ranks far outweighs charters’ numbers in the state; school districts outnumber charters that offer K-3 more than two to one.

“The highs and lows are not surprising,” said Jenn Thompson, director of the Idaho Public Charter School Commission. “Of the schools we authorize, the highest performers have operated for many years. They were well-oiled machines with stable enrollment pre-Covid, so it makes sense that they were better prepared to pivot quickly and stay focused on academics.”

The top performers, by percentage of students reading at or above grade level, were:

Gem Prep Online 95%
North Idaho STEM Charter 90%
Taylor’s Crossing Charter 88%
Compass Public Charter 88%
Kootenai School District 86%
Melba School District 86%
Thomas Jefferson Charter 86%
North Star Charter 85%
Council School District 85%
Xavier Charter 84%

For lower performing schools, “proficiency numbers alone don’t tell the whole story,” Thompson said. Many lower performers had high rates of low-income students, or struggled with operational issues this year, explaining below-average scores, she said.

The bottom 10 performers, by percentage of students at or above grade level, were:

Peace Valley Charter 24%
Chief Tahgee Elementary Academy 28%
Wilder School District 31%
Another Choice Virtual Charter 40%
Blackfoot Community Charter 41%
Wendell School District 42%
North Valley Academy 43%
Syringa Mountain Charter 44%
Monticello Montessori 44%
Plummer-Worley School District 51%

Charters can break from rules and expectations set for traditional school districts, giving them greater leeway to try unique instructional methods. Advocates and critics of charters alike say that independence creates variation in results, helping explain why standardized tests scores vary widely among charter schools in the U.S. and Idaho.

“I think what it shows you is that charter schools have the power to be the best schools in the state, but just because you give freedom and flexibility to schools to be different and to do things differently, it doesn’t mean the schools take advantage of that in a way that results in the best outcomes,” said Terry Ryan, CEO of Bluum, a non-profit charter advocacy group.

Charters were also underrepresented among schools that saw the biggest fall-to-spring improvements, a comparison meant to measure learning gains throughout the school year. Of 16 districts and charters that improved scores by more than 30 points between the fall and the spring, only one was a charter. Another 12 had lower scores in the spring, and 10 of those with backsliding scores were charters.

That was partly because some schools that saw measured reading losses, like Idaho Virtual Academy and Inspire Connections Academy, took on big influxes of new elementary students this year; “scaling services quickly is difficult,” Thompson said.

The 12 districts and charters that saw negative growth in the number of students at or above grade level were:

  • Gem Prep Meridian
  • Mosaics Public School
  • Project Impact STEM Academy
  • Idaho Virtual Academy
  • Camas County School District
  • Pinecrest Academy of Idaho
  • Anser Charter of Idaho
  • Sage International School
  • Peace Valley Charter
  • Oneida County School District
  • Idaho Connections Academy
  • Another Choice Virtual Charter

There are some schools on the list of charters that saw reading losses between the fall and the spring “that do have some systemic problems, and it would be a mistake to pass these result off as ‘just’ the impact of the pandemic when underlying issues need attention,” Thompson added.

But how much weight should one batch of test results be given, and how should school leaders respond? It depends on who you ask.

The charter commission’s main responsibility is authorization — the ability to decide whether charters can continue to operate in the state. And for Ryan, the commission must harness the “political will” needed to either shut down or decline to renew the authorization of charters if they consistently underperform on tests like the IRI.

Reading proficiency is integral after all, and “as sad as this sounds,” students “who are behind by even a year or two oftentimes never catch up,” Ryan said.

Thompson emphasizes the need for changes from local school leaders.

“Regardless of why the scores show negative growth, any school board in that situation would be wise to make sure they accurately identify and address the source of the problem,” she said.

The wide spread in results comes as the charter commission inches toward independence, the result of changes passed by the Legislature earlier this year.

Now, the commission is moving out from under the State Board of Education’s office, though it will remain an offshoot of the State Board. And the commission can now hire its own director, in another move toward independence applauded by charter proponents.

Thompson argues the move will help the commission be nimbler in responding to issues of oversight and in providing support to charters.

Added clarity about the commission’s role could strengthen it, Ryan said. When asked, he said he hopes any potential decrease in oversight from the State Board won’t make problems worse for struggling charters that need support.

The legislative change also made it so the governor will now pick all charter commissioners, rather than a mix of the governor, state speaker of the house and state senate pro tempore appointing candidates. The law took effect July 1.

Further reading: Check back each day this week as EdNews reporter Devin Bodkin publishes a series on Idaho charter schools.

Disclosure: Bluum and Idaho Education News are funded by grants from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation. 

Idaho Education News data analyst Randy Schrader contributed to this report.

Blake Jones

Blake Jones

Reporter Blake Jones covers the politics and policy of Idaho's K-12 public school system. He's a lifelong Idahoan, and holds degrees in Creative Writing and Political Economy from the College of Idaho. Follow Blake on Twitter @jonesblakej. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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