Educate All Students: Larry Miller's Blog

January 7, 2011

How KIPP Charter Schools Keep Test Scores High

Filed under: Charter Schools — millerlf @ 3:48 pm

Myths and realities about KIPP

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation. He is the author ofAll Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools through Public School Choice.” In this post, he refers to a debate that I had with my inimitable colleague Jay Mathews about school reform that discussed Teach for America and the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP. You can find that debate here.

By Richard D. Kahlenberg
In the recent education debate between Valerie Strauss and Jay Mathews, a question arose about the attrition rates at the highly regarded Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) schools. The issue is important because if large numbers of weaker students drop out of KIPP’s rigorous program, it would be highly unfair to compare the test score gains won by the top KIPP students against the scores of all regular public school students – who include KIPP dropouts.

In the debate, Strauss mentioned some studies finding that KIPP schools “have had a very high attrition rate.” Mathews responded by saying it is a “myth that KIPP schools have poor retention rates” and cited a 2010 study that found that KIPP school “are doing about as well as regular schools in their neighborhoods” in terms of attrition.Who’s right? While I respect Jay Mathews’s grasp of educational issues, on this question, the data overwhelmingly support Valerie Strauss’s skepticism.

In a rigorous 2008 study of five KIPP schools in the San Francisco Bay Area, researchers at SRI International found that an astounding 60% of KIPP students left over the course of middle-school. Moreover, the researchers found evidence that the 60% of students who did not persist through the tough KIPP regimen (a longer school day and week, and heavy doses of homework), tended to be the weaker students.

KIPP supporters, like Mathews, respond that a 2010 study of 22 KIPP schools by Mathematica found that the attrition rates were comparable to nearby high poverty public schools that also have lots of kids leave. Poor people tend to move frequently, so high attrition rates are to be expected at KIPP schools, it is argued.

The big difference between KIPP and regular public schools, however, is that whereas struggling students come and go at regular schools, at KIPP, student leave but very few new children enter. Having few new entering students is an enormous advantage not only because low-scoring transfer students are kept out but also because in the later grades, KIPP students are surrounded only by successful peers who are the most committed to the program.
In the comments section of the Answer Sheet blog, when readers pointed out that KIPP schools don’t generally fill students back in, Mathews responded “KIPP schools DO take in new students beyond the 5th grade.”

This is technically accurate, but as the figure above suggests, the vast majority of students enter during the 6th grade (a natural time to enter middle school) and then the total number of KIPP students in 7th and 8th grade falls precipitously.

The KIPP Bay-area schools cannot be dismissed as an outlier on the KIPP attrition question. Columbia University researcher Jeffrey Henig’s 2008 review of several studies found high attrition rates at a number of other KIPP schools.It may well be, in fact, that high attrition rates are a key explanation for KIPP’s success in raising test scores. When KIPP tried to take over a regular public school – where the students are not self-selected, but are assigned to the school; and where students not only leave, but large number of students enter — KIPP abandoned the field after just two years.

KIPP long ago realized that what we charge regular public schools with doing is far more difficult than what KIPP seeks to do.

Below is a figure that shows the attendance at KIPP Bay-area schools. (The figure is part of a Century Foundation document entitled “Charter Schools that Work: Economically Integrated Schools with Teacher Voice.”)

Bay Area KIPP Net Student Enrollment by Grade from 2003-04 to 2006-07 can be seen at:




  1. PLEASE—————Charter School are simply another way for Politicians to reward their friends and get kickbacks from those friends. The kids are being sold to the highest bidder who has NO interest in the child other than the dollar sign on each kid’s back. It’s a farce, a scam and everybody knows it. Standards are not even remotely made nor checked, of course and teachers are not qualified to teach. Great Gig for the CEOs who snicker all the way to the bank.

    Comment by Joe Kenedy — March 19, 2011 @ 10:36 pm | Reply

  2. This article is interesting but has a false premise. The premise seems to be that if you can show that Kipp Schools have a higher attrition rate (they seem to and simple logic tells you they do) then that shows how the KIPP schools keep test scores high. The second part of the sentence does not necessarily follow. My guess is that the high attrition rate might well raise test scores compared to similar mainstream schools, but does it explain the ENTIRE advantage KIPPs seem to have. I seriously doubt it. The KIPP schools have more “time in learning,” tend to hold back students who do not perform at grade level, and have an inexorable focus on raising standardized test scores in their curriculum. The fire anyone who is not on this rather rigid and narrow program.

    Logic tells me this institutional dynamic would raise test scores when compared to mainstream public schools. So the debate is essentially useless. Probably the KIPP schools have an inherent advantage in terms of the families who apply to them and the attrition rate. But they also have a program that would probably raise test scores.

    The questions is, how much do they raise those scores and what are the negative consequences of this effort. You need to do a serious cost-benefit analysis to answer that question, which I am not seeing. My opinion is that these schools DO raise test scores but the degree is wildly exaggerated. And the negative consequences are virtually ignored. Most middle class parents do not want their kids subjected to the extremely narrow, regimented KIPP orientation and for good reason: they kids don’t need it to do well on standardized tests and they would prefer their kids learn to read, write, and get excited about the learning experience. So they will bail out of low income schools which become regimented schools of the KIPP more.

    You will have a two-tier system: exciting innovative eduction for the middle class; regimentation by academic bullies for the poor. Probably the test scores for the latter will be higher than before but at what cost?

    Comment by Jeff Singleton — December 23, 2011 @ 3:49 pm | Reply

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