PHILADELPHIA - Federal education officials have denied Pennsylvania's request to evaluate charter school achievement using more lenient criteria, saying they must be assessed by the same standard as traditional schools.
The rejection means Pennsylvania cannot substitute a less stringent method for measuring "adequate yearly progress," the federal benchmark known as AYP. Critics said the formula artificially inflated charter schools' performance for political reasons.
"I cannot approve this ... because it's not aligned with the statute and regulations," U.S. Assistant Education Secretary Deborah Delisle wrote in a letter released by the state Wednesday.
The issue surfaced in September when Pennsylvania's latest standardized test scores were reported. For the first time - and without approval from federal officials - state Education Secretary Ronald Tomalis treated charter schools as districts, not individual schools.
Schools must hit certain targets at every tested grade level to make AYP. But for a district to meet the benchmark, it needs only to hit targets in one of three grade spans: grades 3-5, 4-6 or 9-12.
Under Pennsylvania law, every charter school is considered its own district. So by using the grade span methodology, about 59 percent of charters made AYP - a figure that supporters touted, comparing it with the 50 percent of traditional schools that hit the target.
Yet only 37 percent of charters would have made AYP under the individual school method. Delisle ordered Pennsylvania to re-evaluate charter schools' AYP status using that standard by the end of the fall semester.
She noted that Pennsylvania can assess charters under the district method but only in addition to the school method.
The state now will assess charters under both standards, according to a Wednesday statement from Pennsylvania Education Department spokesman Tim Eller.
Previously, Eller had argued that the grade span calculation leveled the playing field for charters, which are publicly funded but operate independently of school districts.
And while acknowledging that standard can mask academic problems, Eller has said school districts have taken advantage of the methodology for years. The grade span calculation enabled 61 percent of districts to make AYP in 2011-12, while only 22 percent would have made AYP without it, Eller said.
Opponents say parents are much more interested in the performance of individual schools than districts as a whole.
AYP is a key component of the federal No Child Left Behind law. Schools that fail to make AYP receive additional oversight and, eventually, could end up with new staffs or be shut down.