Some Detroit-area charter schools made impressive gains last year. Most still lag badly behind the state.

Michigan test results released last week were decidedly mixed for the charter sector in Detroit. Charters — public schools that are typically run by private management companies — are perennially in the spotlight here because they enroll about half of the city’s students, one of the highest proportions of any U.S. cities.

About half of charter schools in the city saw their scores improve in math and English for grades 3-7 on Michigan’s annual M-STEP test. While the Detroit Public Schools Community District saw more improvement over the last year, charter schools continue to get higher test scores overall.

Still, the citywide charter pass rate in both subjects significantly trailed the state rate. In math, for example the median pass rate for charter students was roughly 20%, 15 points below the statewide rate.

Test scores are far from the only way to judge a school.

“With any school, there’s lots of information that’s important for parents to know, including things like report cards and conversations with teachers,” said Brian Gutman, director of external relations for EdTrust Midwest, a nonprofit focused on education in Michigan. “What the data tells parents about their child and their school as a whole, is how well that school is doing compared to other schools.”

Nonetheless, the figures are certain to pop up on promotional materials in Detroit as the district and charter schools compete in the zero-sum game of attracting a shrinking pool of students. The outcome of the count day in October will largely determine the budgets of schools in the city: Each additional student comes with roughly $8,000 in state funds. 

Charter leaders can point to pockets of success in the Detroit area:  Madison-Carver Academy, a K-8 school, improved its math scores across all grades. Seventh-grade math scores rose 15 points.

The state obscured results that included only a handful of students to protect their privacy, making it impossible to calculate an accurate average of test scores across charter schools.

But summary measures were made available for the Detroit district, because it is a single entity. District leaders saw the data as cause for celebration. After two years of reform under a new superintendent, the district saw its average scores improve in every grade and subject, in some cases by wide margins.

University Preparatory Science and Math Middle School was one of only a few charter schools to improve in all categories in Detroit, though several others, such as Legacy Charter Academy and Caniff Liberty Academy, saw their scores rise in all but one or two grades.

And while the district generally showed more consistent improvement than charter schools, its overall proficiency levels were lower. For example, about 12% of district third-graders passed the English test, according to an analysis by EdTrust Midwest. By comparison, roughly 21% of third-graders in Detroit charter schools passed the English test.

To be sure, some district schools lost ground. Both the district and the charter sector had underperformers.

Scores on the SAT — a college-readiness exam taken by all 11th-graders — were slightly down for charter high schools in Detroit, following the national trend.

Still, the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, a charter school group, touted the results, pointing out that charters in Detroit scored higher on the SAT than district schools that don’t require students to pass an entrance exam.

The district’s two flagship application schools, Renaissance High School and Cass Technical High School, had average SAT scores of 1035 and 1005. The charter school with the best SAT score in the city, Detroit Edison Public School Academy, had an average score of 925.

Dan Quisenberry, president of the charter group, said parents should think of test scores as one valuable indicator among many. He compared test scores to measures of cholesterol used by doctors.

A single cholesterol reading “doesn’t describe Dan — who I am as a person,” Quisenberry said.

But he added: “If I don’t keep my cholesterol number in check, then I’m not going to be a human being for very long.”

Source: Michigan Center for Educational Performance and Information. Blank cells were withheld by the state to protect student privacy.