Charter Schools’ Obsession With Test Scores Deliberately Misses the Point

Putting aside the endless problems with punitive high-stakes standardized tests produced by a handful of large for-profit corporations, charter school advocates have never stopped making a fetish out of students’ scores on these political instruments. Charter school promoters obsess endlessly over racist psychometric tests that have been rejected by many for decades. They appear to be immune to all criticism of these widely-rejected tests. No critical examination of these top-down corporate tests is even attempted. It is as if everyone is expected to automatically embrace them and treat them as being useful, flawless, and meaningful.

What is odd, however, is that thousands of charter schools, which frequently cherry-pick their students, actually perform poorly on such corporate tests, more poorly than many under-funded public schools, and about the same as some under-funded public schools. There is really not much to boast about. The charter school record is not impressive, especially when viewed in its totality. Thirty years after their appearance, segregated charter schools cannot seem to claim victory for much.

It is no surprise that more than 150 privately-operated non-profit and for-profit charter schools close every year due to academic failure (and financial malfeasance). Literally thousands have failed and closed in three decades, leaving many black and brown families out in the cold.

Overall, it remains hard to make a compelling argument for the existence of private business like deregulated charter schools. Why have another “system” of schools that undermines public schools and still fails to deliver? What is the reason for such wasteful redundancy, especially when it undermines the public interest? Competition makes losers out of everyone. If it was indisputable and crystal clear to everyone that deregulated charter schools are the silver bullet that advocates keep stubbornly claiming they are, there would be little or no controversy surrounding these contract schools. But every year the controversy around charter schools only intensifies.

Even if all students in a charter school scored 100 on an unsound corporate test, there is no justification for the existence of privately-operated charter schools. The main criteria for judging whether a school should exist is not whether students pass or fail unsound corporate tests.

The tests and students’ scores are meaningless at many levels—for both charter schools and public schools. They are methodologically, philosophically, and statistically flawed. Focusing on the tests pressures people to ignore the core issue regarding charter schools, which is whether they are public or not in the proper sense of the word. They are not. Charter schools are privatized marketized schools. Once it is recognized, understood, appreciated, internalized, and not forgotten that charter schools are not public schools, then all other issues become moot or secondary. The “publicness/privateness” of segregated charter schools is the key issue. Thus, for example, because they are private businesses, charter schools were able to seize hundreds of millions of dollars in Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funds from the CARES Act. Public schools were not permitted any access to PPP funds because they are not private businesses, they are public entities.

Once it is grasped that segregated non-profit and for-profit charter schools are not public entities then the issue becomes: why are they receiving any public funds, assets, facilities, resources, or authority? What valid claim do private entities have to such things? Public and private cannot be equated, they mean very different things. The public and private spheres have different aims, agendas, and preoccupations. The dictionary even defines public and private as the opposite of each other. Why confound terms that are antonyms?

It is helpful to recall that charter schools are contract schools that are segregated, deunionized, run by unelected officials, have high teacher turnover rates, siphon money from public schools, regularly under-perform, dodge many public laws and standards, frequently over-pay administrators, often cherry-pick their students, and are constantly plagued by endless scandal, fraud, and corruption. Charter schools on average also suspend students at a significantly higher rate than public schools. Who supports any of this?

If charter schools wish to exist, so be it. But like private schools they must not be permitted to have access to any public funds, assets, facilities, resources, or authority. They must fund and support themselves without any reliance on the public sphere. Public funds and resources belong to the public and public schools, not someone else.

Shawgi Tell is author of the book Charter School Report Card. He can be reached at Read other articles by Shawgi.