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Feds’ denial of charter AYP rule change will allow closer Philly school comparisons

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

Bache-Martin is a K-8 District-run public school in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia with about 400 students. People for People is a K-8 charter school with just over 500 students not too far away in lower North Philadephia.

If state Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis had had his way, these two schools would have been judged by different standards in determining whether they met federal achievement goals.

But earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Education shot down Tomalis’ rule change for calculating so-called adequate yearly progress (AYP) for charters. The federal department’s action will have an impact in Philadelphia, where more than half the state’s charter schools are located.

For one thing, it will allow parents to make more of an apples-to-apples comparison between charters and District-run schools — at least when looking at test scores.

Here’s what happened:

Tomalis decided, before getting federal approval, to treat charter schools as whole districts in calculating whether they made AYP. Tomalis applied the change for the 2011-12 school year at the urging of charter advocates.

Bob Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, argued that treating charters as individual schools instead of districts put them at a disadvantage and that Tomalis’ action leveled the playing field.

The standard for whole districts is less stringent than that for individual schools. For districts, it breaks down K-12 into elementary, middle and high school grade spans. Meeting the standard in just one grade span is sufficient.

For individual schools, all tested grades must hit the mark.

Using the new system, a higher percentage of charters than regular public schools met the federal benchmarks in 2012. And there was a big jump from 2011.

But the feds told Tomalis: no go.

"Pennsylvania is obligated to make AYP decisions for all schools and hold all schools to the same standards," said the U.S. Department of Education letter from Assistant Secretary Deborah S. Delisle.

Delisle ordered the state to recalculate and publicize the new AYP status of charters by January. An analysis by the Allentown Morning Call found that 52 of them had one or more grade spans that did not meet the federal benchmarks.

Legally, charters in Pennsylvania are considered Local Education Agencies, or LEAs, the equivalent of districts. But Delisle noted that there are some small single-school districts in Pennsylvania that receive AYP calculations as both schools and districts. The same should happen for charters, Delisle said.

There are more than 80 charter schools in Philadelphia. Last year, using Tomalis’ method, 43 Philadelphia charters – more than half – made AYP, compared to just 33 District-run schools. We will know in January, once the individual school standard is applied, whether that number will go down for charters.

School District leaders have decided not to comment on this, said spokesman Fernando Gallard. They are already in hot water with charter advocates for not accepting applications for new stand-alone charter schools, citing adverse financial impact.

Treating charters as separate districts also had an impact on enforcement of new testing security protocols put in place as a result of the investigation into possible adult cheating on standardized tests.

The state imposed stricter testing protocols on all District-run schools, even those where no statistical evidence of possible cheating had been found, including the requirement that teachers not proctor their own students. For charters, because they are all their own legal entities, only those with problems had to follow the stricter protocols.

PSSA scores dropped considerably for 2011-12, which Tomalis attributed to the more stringent test security and others said was at least in part due to severe budget cuts. In Philadelphia, the drops were more widespread in District schools than in charters.

One more thing: Last school year, District schools were already feeling the brunt of those budget cuts. The impact of those cuts hits charters this year.

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