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Since Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) released a report on charter schools in 2009 that prompted questions about how well these schools were serving students, the sector has continued to grow. In the past four years, national charter school enrollment has increased by 80 percent to 2.3 million students.

CREDO’s latest comprehensive report checks back in with the charter movement and concludes that charter performance has improved since 2009 – but finds charter schools that outperform traditional school districts are still the exception rather than the rule.

The original CREDO study, which looked at charters in 15 states and the District of Columbia, made headlines with the finding that just 17 percent of charter schools significantly outperformed their district counterparts in math. Charter school students performed worse in both math and reading than their equivalent peers in the traditional public school system.

The newest study looks at the original states plus nine others and New York City. All told, it covers 95 percent of the nation’s charter school students. The researchers found that charter school students are now ahead of traditional public school students by seven days in reading and behind by seven days in math.

At the same time, the gap between how charter and traditional school students perform has narrowed significantly. The Stanford researchers say the change was partially due to the closure of low-performing charter schools as well as a decline in achievement among public school students.

While performance varied considerably from state to state, overall a quarter of charter schools significantly outperformed traditional public schools in reading and 29 percent did so in math. Nineteen percent of charters did significantly worse in reading and 31 percent scored worse in math.

“There remain worrying numbers of charter schools whose learning gains are either substantially worse than the local alternative or are insufficient to give their students the academic preparation they need,” the study said.

More than half of all charter school students are eligible for free- or reduced-priced lunch. Given their findings, the CREDO researchers concluded that charters are not closing the achievement gap—which is the stated goal of many of these schools. Minority and low-income students in charter schools typically learn more annually than their peers in traditional schools, but white students in the traditional system still outpace them.

The overall numbers hid important differences in performance within student groups, the study also found, suggesting that charters do offer certain students a significantly better experience than they would find in a regular school.

The more disadvantaged the student is, for example, the better they do in comparison to similar students in district schools. Black charter school students did not learn significantly more in reading or math than black students in traditional schools, but low-income, black students were ahead of their counterparts in traditional schools by 29 days in reading and 36 days in math.

“We don’t think seven days is very substantial,” said Devora Davis, research manager at CREDO. But jumping ahead by a month? “That’s starting to look pretty substantial.”

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