Two years ago, just one in three students at Achievement First Bushwick were rated “proficient” on the state’s reading tests. It wasn’t exactly the kind of result promised from a high-performing charter school in a “no excuses” network.

But the school has nearly doubled that rate in the two years since, according to state test scores released Tuesday. On the 2012 English language arts test, nearly 60 percent of students at the school were rated proficient, compared to 47 percent of students citywide.

Bushwick’s gains on the reading tests were among the largest made in the charter sector, which improved as a whole by seven percentage points, from 44.5 percent to 51.5 percent.  The improvement — from matching the citywide average to scoring well above it — has provided fodder for charter school advocates and the Bloomberg administration to push back against critics who oppose the expansion of charter schools across the state.

“Policy makers and legislators should take note” of the gains, said Bill Phillips, president of the New York Charter Schools Association.”It’s not only a tougher measure than the host district comparison, it suggests that districts across the state should consider charters as another tool to better educate children.”

“We can’t possibly handle the demand from parents for the charter schools,” Mayor Bloomberg said during a press conference Tuesday. “They’re just off the charts.”

Several charter operators announced their schools’ test scores in celebratory press releases Tuesday. Deborah Kenny touted the eighth-grade math and reading scores at her schools, the Harlem Village Academies. The Success Academy network announced a 7-point gain in reading proficiency across its four schools with testing grades, more than twice the citywide improvement rate. And Democracy Prep said the low-performing charter school it took over last year had posted the largest reading proficiency gains of any school in the state, with third-grade reading proficiency hurtling from 28 percent in 2011 to 63 percent this year.

The charter school sector wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic to promote its gains two years ago, when reading scores slumped. Struggles to boost literacy were not unique to Achievement First Bushwick.Across the city, the charter school sector had stalled on boosting student performance. In 2010, 42 percent of students scored proficient on the state reading tests, virtually identical to the city’s district average. The results were not what the charter sector had hoped for at a time when when advocates were trying to make the case that more charter schools were necessary in the city and state.

After last year’s results barely budged, many charter school leaders realized they had to change their approach.

“I know that people put in a very hard look at this time last year and said we’re not getting the job done,” said James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter Center, an organization that advocates for and offers support to charter schools.

One of those schools was Achievement First Bushwick, where scores on the reading tests were low enough that its authorizer slapped the school with a shortened charter renewal. Principal Amy D’Angelo told GothamSchools last year that in response to its 2010 test scores, it began overhauling its approach to teaching literacy.

“AF Bushwick launched an intensive effort to strength curriculum and instruction in ELA and services for ELL students,” D’Angelo told us last year. She said she had hired an English specialist to work independently with students who struggled the most on reading and writing.

In her press release, Kenny also said her schools had bolstered instruction to meet higher standards on the test. “As the tests have become more difficult, our teachers have developed and improved instructional strategies to help all students reach their highest potential,” she said.

One of the criticisms about charter schools is that they don’t serve comparable numbers of students with high needs, an assessment that was largely supported by a report that Merriman’s office released earlier this year. So far, disaggregated charter school data for these types of students aren’t available.

But in a press release after the test scores were announced, Merriman noted that the schools do serve groups of students who typically have lower test scores. “Even though New York City charter schools serve students who are overwhelmingly disadvantaged economically and largely African-American and Hispanic, they are proficient in math at nearly the same rate as white students are across New York,” he wrote.

For now, the Charter Center has put together a useful interactive tool to browse the latest performance of charter schools. The scatter graph shows how each school performed on both the English and the math tests. Schools located high up in the right quadrant had the highest combined proficiency rates. We took the numbers one step further and added the proficiency rates for each school to determine which ones performed the best for both subjects.

Here’s the list of the top-10 scoring charter schools. Their combined proficiency is in parentheses:

1. Icahn Charter School 4 (195)
2. Icahn Charter School 2 (192.4)
3. Success Academy 1 (187.4)
4. Success Academy 4 (185.9)
5. Success Academy 3 (184)
6. Bronx Charter School for Excellence (182)
7. Success Academy 2 (178.6)
8. Williamsburg Collegiate (157)
9. Icahn Charter School (166)
10. Brooklyn Ascend (153)

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