Bullis pulls ahead with top test scores

Average test scores put Los Altos charter school at No. 1 in the state

 
by Kevin Forestieri / Mountain View Voice

For many charter schools in Santa Clara County, the results of the first Common Core-aligned standardized tests were a wake-up call as many students fell behind their public school peers.

But Bullis Charter School in Los Altos appears to be bucking the trend in a big way. One analysis of the test scores indicates that the charter school is not only outperforming nearby schools it’s now the top school in the state.

The school ranking website Schooldigger looked at over 5,500 schools in California and ranked the schools based on average test scores, rather than the percentage of students proficient in English language arts and math. The results show Bullis Charter School had the top average score in the state, followed closely by William Faria Elementary in Cupertino. Almost all of the top 10 school were located in the Bay Area.

Wanny Hersey, principal of Bullis Charter School, said the school embraced a curriculum where students explain their answers and solve problems using different methodologies long before such practices became hallmarks of Common Core. In math, for example, Hersey said it’s not uncommon for students to solve problems without actually knowing how or why they ended up with the answer — something the school has worked hard to overcome

“Kids can get the average (number), but they don’t (normally) know what an average is,” she said.

Despite the top-tier performance, Hersey insisted that Bullis does not teach to the test. The school has spent years developing its “focused learning goals” program, a holistic approach to tracking student performance that has space for personal, or “passion” goals that the student hopes to achieve in a given school year.

Rather than lug around a filing cabinet of individual student goals to track progress year to year, teachers at the school adopted a new program this year called FreshGrade, which has digital profiles of all students and their grades on assignments and tests.

Charter schools performed slightly better overall compared to public schools in California, according to the California Charter School Association. Charter school students outperformed their public school peers by 4.4 percent in English language arts and 1.3 percent in math, according to the association’s website.

Emily Bertelli, a spokeswoman for the association, said charter schools have an edge in adopting the new Common Core curriculum because they have more freedom and flexibility than public schools to change academic standards on the fly.

“The added flexibility means charter schools are able to be more nimble in adopting new academic programs to meet the individualized needs of their students,” Bertelli told the VOice via email.

But other charter schools in Santa Clara County, for the most part, didn’t see the same level of success. A majority of the charter schools, many of them located in San Jose, saw student proficiency in both subjects fall short of the county-wide average, including many of the Rocketship Education charter schools that teach mostly low-income students. At Rocketship Fuerza Community Prep School in San Jose, for example, only 35 percent of students met the state standards for English language arts, compared to the county-wide average of 58 percent. For many of the Rocketship schools, those numbers remain below the average even when specifically looking at the scores of low-income and minority students.

The Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) and Summit charter schools performed slightly better, but many of the schools also had proficiency levels below the county-wide average.

Charter schools remains a hot issue in the Bay Area, as Rocketship Education and other organizations seek to expand the number of charter schools in Santa Clara County. Rocketship’s recent plans to open another 20 charter schools, which was approved by the Santa Clara County Board of Education, suffered setbacks this year when it had to pare back the list to just seven. The withdrawal came after four school districts in the South County filed lawsuits against the board of education for unilaterally accepting the proposed schools.

The U.S. Department of Education, under Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, has also been trying to expand the use of charter schools throughout the country, spending $3 billion over the last decade through its Charter Schools Program. On Monday, the department announced an additional $157 million to create and expand public charter schools across the nation.