Watching the Numbers

Unlike district schools, Edison Charter must succeed to survive.


While rising test scores on California's statewide test saved Edison Charter Academy from takeover by the San Francisco Unified School District, falling test scores have now put the charter's future at risk.

Spring 2001 test scores were announced August 15, two months after Edison Charter's charter was transferred from the district to the State Board of Education. Edison Charter's reading and math scores, which had risen sharply for the school's first two years, were down in virtually every grade and subject.

On the state's Academic Performance Index, Edison was the lowest-ranked elementary school in San Francisco—just like the district-run school that the charter replaced.

Scores remain above the school's 1999 level, but the numbers are very low. Only 23 percent of students tested at or above grade level in reading, compared to 32 percent the year before; only 32 percent make the grade in math, down from 42 percent. Students do better the longer they attend Edison Charter, says principal Vincent Matthews. Edison's cohort analysis found fourth and fifth graders did better than they had the year before. But third graders did worse than they had as second graders. And the 2001 second grade scores are dismal.

"The amount of time we spent defending ourselves—all those late-night board meetings, all the media tours—we could have used that time to educate students," says Matthews. "It was a distraction."

To Edison opponents, the scores proved the school was a fraud. Caroline Grannan, a critic of the school, e-mailed the press: "After months of publicity by New York-based Edison Schools claiming superior gains and implying superior performance to San Francisco districtwide schools…Edison Charter students scored significantly below districtwide students in every category both in spring 2000 and in the newly released spring 2001 results."

It's not uncommon for schools that post a large rise in scores one year to dip the next year. Statewide, one-third of schools where teachers earned performance awards for gains in 2000 lost ground in 2001. Reading and math scores fell at other San Francisco schools that are comparable to Edison Charter in percentages of black and Hispanic students.

However, no other school is under the scrutiny that Edison Charter faces. The company promised progress. It has to deliver.

Diallo Dphrepaulezz studied the school's progress for the Pacific Research Institute and now serves on the charter's board. He doesn't know if the drop in scores reflects a statistical blip, a leveling-off once the easy progress is made, or the high anxiety that gripped the school in the spring of 2001. He does know that another bad year won't be tolerated.

Edison Charter's scores must start improving again in 2002, warns John Mockler, executive director of the State Board of Education, which is now the school's charter granter. "This year they probably deserve a pass because of all the stuff that was going on with the district," Mockler told the Los Angeles Times. "But if that happened two years or three years in a row, you'd have to say adios, and we will."

Reed Hastings, who chairs the state board, is dedicated to the expansion of charter schools—but only if they work. Hastings urges the speedy revocation of charters when a school isn't performing. Which, after all, is precisely the point.