Charter Schools and the Road to College Readiness: The Effects on College Preparation, Attendance and Choice

May 2013
Susan Dynarski, Joshua Angrist, Sarah Cohodes, Parag Pathak, Christopher Walters

Boston’s over-subscribed charter schools generate impressive gains on tests taken through the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS). Lottery estimates show that each year spent at a charter middle school boosts MCAS scores by about a fifth of a standard deviation in English Language Arts and more than a third of a standard deviation in math.

Our new findings suggest that the achievement gains generated by Boston’s high-performing charter high schools are remarkably persistent. While the students who were randomly offered a seat at these high schools graduate at about the same rate as those not offered a seat, lottery estimates show that charter enrollment produces gains on Advanced Placement (AP) tests and the SAT. Charter attendance roughly doubles the likelihood that a student sits for an AP exam and increases the share of students who pass AP Calculus. Charter attendance does not increase the likelihood of taking the SAT, but it does boost scores, especially in math. Charter school attendance also increases the pass rate on the exam required for high school graduation in Massachusetts, with especially large effects on the likelihood of qualifying for a state-sponsored college scholarship. Other estimates suggest that charter attendance may increase college enrollment, but the number of charter applicants old enough to be in college is still too small for this result to be conclusive. By contrast, our results show that charter attendance induces a clear shift from two-year to four-year colleges, with gains most pronounced at four-year public institutions in Massachusetts.

This study would not have been possible without extraordinary cooperation and assistance from the charter schools in the study, from Dr. Kamalkant Chavda and the staff of the Boston Public Schools (BPS), and from Carrie Conaway and the staff of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). We would especially like to recognize our institutional partners, who have many demands on their time and resources, but have nevertheless been more than willing to repeatedly share their expertise and data with our academic research team. This sort of partnership is not to be taken for granted; it might be unique among US states and public school districts. In their openness to sophisticated and impartial data analysis and research, BPS and DESE provide a wonderful example for our nation. We would also like to thank Annice Correia, who provided excellent research and administrative support, and Daisy Sun and Peter Hull for their expert research assistance. Finally, the research team gratefully acknowledges financial support from the Institute of Education Sciences under Grant Number R305A120269.