Oklahoma charter schools rank in national top 10 for academic performance

Charter schools in the state also showed a smaller achievement gap for minority students

By: - November 15, 2023 5:30 am
blue school hallway lockers and checkered tile in high school students in the background (down-sampled to increase sharpness)

A decade of nationwide test results show Oklahoma's charter schools scored among the top in the nation. (Getty Images) (This image cannot be republished without a Getty subscription.)

OKLAHOMA CITY — A decade of testing data ranks Oklahoma near the top in the country for charter school performance.

Oklahoma ranked No. 6 among 36 states for the academic success of its charter schools, according to test score data from 2009 to 2019, which Harvard University compiled in a report and released on Tuesday. 

Charter schools in Oklahoma also had the smallest difference in performance between white and minority students compared to charter students in other states, according to the Harvard report.

The news was affirming but not surprising for Chris Brewster, the superintendent of Santa Fe South Schools, a network of charter schools in south Oklahoma City.

Brewster said it’s necessary for a charter school’s survival to emphasize academic outcomes. Otherwise families will take their children elsewhere.

“What charter schools do is we don’t let ourselves off the hook,” Brewster said. “We have to educate in measurable ways and be accountable, or we’re not doing our job.”

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Charter schools are public schools, but unlike traditional school districts, students must apply for admission and are often selected at random in a lottery. Oklahoma is home to about 40 brick-and-mortar charter schools and seven virtual charter schools.

These schools have more autonomy to develop their own curriculum and school calendar as a testing ground for innovative practices in education.

Having that freedom means charter schools can adapt to modern learning needs more quickly than the larger public education system, said Steven Stefanick, superintendent of the Harding Independence Charter District.

Stefanick’s district is home to one of the state’s top-performing high schools, Harding Charter Preparatory. About 40% of the school’s students are living in poverty, but its diverse student body scored an overall A for academic achievement on state tests, according to results from the 2021-22 school year.

Stefanick said the key to Harding Charter Prep’s success is providing college-level Advanced Placement courses to all students, not only a select group.

“We’re just open access on that high level of learning,” he said. “It doesn’t matter which students come to our door. We’re going to provide it to them.”

The results discussed in Tuesday’s report come from 10 years of nationwide testing from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. NAEP, also known as the Nation’s Report Card, tests fourth and eighth graders in math and reading every two years. 

Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance compiled a decade of charter students’ NAEP results for a state-by-state comparison. 

Harvard researchers noted Alaska, which ranked No. 1 for charter performance, and Oklahoma are states that typically receive a low ranking from NAEP for overall public school test results, but their charter schools scored above the national average compared to charters in other states.

Oklahoma led the nation’s charter schools with the smallest performance gap between white students’ and Black students’ test results. They also had the least difference between white students’ and Hispanic students’ NAEP scores.

Black students at charter schools scored about two and a half years of learning behind their white peers in Oklahoma, Arizona, New York, Florida and Illinois.

Hispanic students were about a year to 1 1/3 years of learning behind in Oklahoma, Louisiana, Illinois, Florida, and Ohio.

Both Santa Fe South and Harding Independence schools create individual learning plans for students scoring below their grade level.

Brewster said the catching-up process could take three years for students in Santa Fe South, which serves a high-need, majority Hispanic population.

The charter district focuses on instructional quality to achieve its goals. Many of its teachers are alternatively certified or have little classroom experience, so they undergo exhaustive training and preparation.

“I think the adults in the room have to hold ourselves responsible for the kids’ results,” Brewster said. “I think we just see that more often at the charter school level than we do the traditional school level.”



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Nuria Martinez-Keel
Nuria Martinez-Keel

Nuria Martinez-Keel covers education for Oklahoma Voice. She worked in newspapers for six years, more than four of which she spent at The Oklahoman covering education and courts. Nuria is an Oklahoma State University graduate.