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New study says students at most KIPP schools make “substantial” gains

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Students at 22 KIPP middle schools around the country made "statistically significant and educationally substantial" gains in math and reading when compared with other students in their neighborhoods, according to a new study by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.

The study, which was commissioned by KIPP and paid for by foundations, compared the KIPP students to others in their neighborhoods with similar backgrounds and academic profiles who attended regular public schools. It examined student records for both groups starting in third and fourth grades to measure their academic trajectories before starting middle school in order to get a better understanding of KIPP’s effects.

"For the vast majority of KIPP schools studied, impacts on students’ state assessment scores in mathematics and reading are positive, statistically significant, and educationally substantial," wrote the report’s authors. Students at 18 of the 22 schools made statistically significant gains in math, and those at 15 schools made gains in reading.

"The effects are overwhelmingly positive," said Brian Gill, one of the researchers, in a call with reporters.

Still, this phase of the study, which will not be complete until 2014, does not quite put to rest concerns that KIPP benefits because families who choose to enter the lottery are more involved in their children’s education. Gill said that the next phases of the research will be a randomized study that compares KIPP students with those who entered the lottery but didn’t win.

In that case, said Gill, "we’ll know that parental influence is the same, the only difference is that some won the lottery and others didn’t."

This study found that students entering these 22 KIPP schools "typically had prior achievement levels that were lower than the average achievement in their local school districts…we found no evidence that KIPP middle schools are systematically enrolling more advantaged students from their districts." It did find, however, that KIPP schools typically enroll smaller concentrations of special education students and English language learners.

The magnitude of the effects on achievement — using test score data as the measure — "are frequently large enough to substantially reduce race- and income-based achievement gaps within three years of entering KIPP," according to the report.

On average, half the KIPP schools by the third year moved students an 1.2 years of extra growth in math, the equivalent of improving from the 30th percentile to the 48th. In reading, the extra growth was 0.9 years.

KIPP Philadelphia, a middle school on North Broad Street, was among the schools studied. But the report does not identify the schools by name and it is not possible to figure out which is which. Only schools opened in 2006 or before were included, in order to measure growth over three years.

The study also found that KIPP held back students more than traditional schools do, declining to move them on unless they master grade-level material. Although not explored, that practice could have implications for the data.

And, it said, addressing another persistent concern, students don’t leave KIPP schools at higher rates than those in comparable public schools in their areas, although attrition rates among the 22 schools varied widely, according to the data.

Gary Miron, a researcher who has done extensive work on charter schools said that while measuring the attrition rates, the study didn’t take into account the full impact of student transience. Regular public schools get students coming and going all year long, while KIPP schools generally don’t replace students who leave, which could also affect the conclusions.

"The lower performing, transient students coming from traditional public schools are not given a place in KIPP, since those schools generally only take students in during the initial intake grade, whether this be 5th or 6th grade," said Miron, a researcher at Western Michigan University.

Despite this misgiving, Miron said he found the methodology "rigorous and high quality."

The report "shows that KIPP is working," said Marc Mannella, CEO of KIPP Philadelphia. "Some of the other conclusions, we don’t cream kids, that attrition rates are comparable to schools around us, show that our supporters are right to believe in us. Hopefully, some people on the fence will become believers."

KIPP Philadelphia this year opened a new middle school in West Philadelphia and earlier this month won approval from the School Reform Commission to add 150 kindergarteners and 9th graders on the way to becoming a K-12 school.

While KIPP, which stands for Knowledge is Power Program, was founded as a middle school, the recent nationwide trend has been to expand.

"Commitment to K-12 is a deep part of who KIPP is and what we’re doing as a network," said Richard Barth, the national CEO of the KIPP Foundation. "Five years ago, we were basically a middle school network.

Today, KIPP’s 99 schools include 24 elementary schools and 11 high schools, he said.

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