UChicago Consortium studies differences between CPS charter, non-charter schools

In its first in-depth look at charter high schools, the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research looked beyond test scores to examine the differences between charter and non-charter high schools in Chicago Public Schools.

The study, released Nov. 14, found that, on average, charter high schools in Chicago look similar to non-charter schools on some dimensions of organizational capacity and some measures of student performance. Yet, on average, charter high school students had higher attendance, test scores and rates of college enrollment than similar students in non-charter high schools. The study also found considerable variation among charter high schools on key outcomes, including test scores and college enrollment and selectivity.

The study found:

  • Once enrolled, students in charter high schools reported more challenging instruction, had higher attendance and had higher test scores, on average, compared to students in non-charter high schools with similar attendance and test scores in the middle grades
  • Rates of four-year college enrollment and enrollment in more selective colleges were higher, on average, for students at charter schools than similar students at non-charter high schools
  • Charter high school students were more likely to transfer schools between ninth and 12th grades than similar students in non-charter high schools
  • Charter high schools in Chicago enroll students with higher eighth-grade attendance but similar or lower eighth-grade test scores than non-charter high schools

The UChicago Consortium study comes following a decade of rapid growth of CPS charter schools. As of 2016, 22 percent of CPS students in grades 9–12 were enrolled in a charter high school, compared to only 4 percent a decade earlier. In its study, the UChicago Consortium examined four key dimensions of charter high schools in CPS: school organization and policies; incoming skills and characteristics of charter high school enrollees; school transfers; and student performance. It expands the existing research base on charter schools by moving beyond test scores to look at a range of outcomes, and by examining variation among charter high schools.

“The research base on charter schools relies heavily on test scores as a student outcome, despite the fact that grades and attendance have been shown to be more predictive for students’ later outcomes,” said the report’s lead author Julia A. Gwynne, managing director and senior research scientist at the UChicago Consortium. “We thought it was important to look beyond test scores to have a more comprehensive understanding of charter schools in Chicago. In fact, this study is one of the first studies to look at attendance and measures of school climate in charters.”  

The study finds, on average, CPS charter high schools looked similar to non-charter, non-selective schools on some dimensions of organizational capacity, such as leadership, but looked quite different on other dimensions, such as preparation for post-secondary. Charter school students were more likely than similar students in non-charter high schools to describe their schools as more academically demanding and report that their school engaged in helping them plan for the future. Charter school teachers also reported that their schools were more likely to expect students to go to college and to promote college readiness.

The study also found charter high school students transferred out of their schools at higher rates, compared to similar students in non-charter high schools. By the beginning of the fourth year of high school, 24.2 percent of students who began high school in a charter school transferred to another school in the district, compared to 17.2 percent of non-charter students. The majority of students who transferred by the beginning of their second year in high school transferred to a CPS non-charter high school. Transfer rates were highest in low-performing or recently opened charter high schools. The study did not look at the reasons students transferred.

The study also found considerable variation across charter high schools on some student outcomes, including test scores and college enrollment, compared to non-charter high schools. After controlling for differences in students’ incoming skills, experience and background characteristics, there was far more variation among charter schools on these outcomes than among non-charter schools.

“This study raises some important questions. In particular, why do students transfer out of charter schools at higher rates than other schools, and what are the implications of this for their long-term educational attainment?” said Gwynne. “We hope that this work will expand how charter schools are studied overall—especially looking beyond test scores—and that it will provide additional insights for understanding charter high schools in Chicago.”