Feds Overrule Pennsylvania’s Lenient AYP Grading Standard for Charter Schools

The U.S. Department of Education has blocked an attempt by Pennsylvania’s Education Secretary to evaluate state charter schools using a more lenient method for calculating AYP, the “adequate yearly progress” measurement that determines whether schools have met the minimum academic standards under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

Without seeking advice or approval from the U.S. Department of Education, Pennsylvania Education Secretary Ron Tomalis announced in early September that charter schools in the state would begin to be treated as school districts instead of individual schools when evaluating their AYP grades, starting with the 2011-2012 school year. While individual schools must hit specified targets of success in every grade level to qualify for AYP, a school district only needs to have one grade span—grades 3-5, 6-8, or 9-12—cross the threshold in order for the district to meet its academic threshold.

Under his plan, public schools would continue to be evaluated under both individual and district-wide criteria, while charter schools would only follow the more lenient “district method” of AYP evaluation—meaning that only one of the three grade spans at a charter school had to meet AYP standards for the entire school to qualify.

“Historical data indicates that making AYP under NCLB has been a significant struggle for Pennsylvania charter schools, with a consistently lower percentage of charter schools making AYP than traditional public schools,” the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, which also filed a legal brief in protest of the change, said in a statement. “If not for the less stringent AYP calculation for charter schools used by PDE for 2011-12, that trend would continue this year as well.”

59 percent of charter schools met the AYP mark under the new system, compared to 50 percent for individual public schools. However, only 37 percent of charter schools would have met AYP if they were evaluated the same as in previous years. According to data from the Pennsylvania School Board Association, 44 out of the 77 charter schools that reached the AYP threshold would not have qualified if they were graded on the individual school method.

“Charter schools are public schools, funded by local and state taxpayers, so it is important that accountability standards are based on fair comparisons,” says Mike Crossey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association.

The U.S. Department of Education agreed with Crossey’s assessment, issuing a federal order on November 19th saying that charter schools had to be treated as individual schools and that the move to evaluate them using the district method was “not aligned with the statute and regulations.”

“Pennsylvania is obligated to make AYP decisions for all schools and hold all schools to the same standards,” said the order, which was signed by assistant U.S. education secretary Deborah Delisle.

With Pennsylvania required to change its approach to quantifying academic success, some state leaders are demanding that Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration learn from its mistakes and stop holding charter schools to a separate educational standard.

“Secretary Tomalis and the Corbett Administration should stop their efforts to game the system, and the General Assembly should enact meaningful reforms which address financial and academic accountability for charter schools,” says Crossey.