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Evaluation of Conversion Magnet Schools

Contract Information

Current Status:

This study has been completed.


September 2006 – May 2015



Contract Number:



American Institutes for Research
University of California at San Diego
Berkeley Policy Associates



Since the mid-1970s, magnet schools have been critical to school district efforts to implement voluntary desegregation plans and, in some cases, court desegregation orders. They have become a component of public school choice as well as a strategy used by districts aiming to improve the achievement of all students, particularly disadvantaged students. Since 1985, the U.S. Department of Education Office of Innovation and Improvement's (OII) Magnet Schools Assistance Program (MSAP) has provided grants to school districts to support magnet programs with the specific goals of reducing, eliminating, or preventing minority group isolation; improving student achievement; and promoting diversity and increasing choice in public schools. The MSAP program received more than $91 million in Fiscal Year 2014.

Despite the presence of different types of magnet schools in the United States and growing interest in their outcomes, there is limited evidence about their effectiveness. Drawing broad conclusions about magnet schools is challenging because there is variation in the structure (whole-school magnets versus programs within a school), model ("traditional" magnets versus "destination" magnets), and target population (neighborhood students versus students from outside the magnet neighborhood). This evaluation of magnet schools focused on elementary schools that converted to whole-school magnets. It separately described the outcomes for schools following the destination model and schools following the traditional model. It described what happens to the schools overall as well as the two groups of students that they served (neighborhood students and students from outside the magnet neighborhood) in terms of diversity and achievement.

  • Did the composition of neighborhood students and students from outside the neighborhood in the magnet schools change after conversion?
  • Did the diversity in the magnet schools increase after conversion, and is there any evidence that it was related to conversion?
  • Did the achievement in the magnet schools increase after conversion, and is there any evidence that it was related to conversion?

The study included 11 districts with 21 elementary schools that converted to magnet schools (conversion magnets) and were funded in the 2004 and 2007 MSAP grant cycles. School records data were collected for three years before and up to four years after the magnet school conversion. Descriptive analyses were conducted to examine changes in the composition and achievement for the entire student population in the magnet schools, as well as for neighborhood students and students from outside the neighborhood. Additional analyses examined whether the diversity in the magnet schools increased after conversion, relative to their districts, and whether there was evidence it was related to conversion.

  • When measured against district changes, both types of magnet schools experienced some changes in diversity in the expected direction.
  • Achievement in the traditional magnet schools was higher after conversion, outpacing district changes in English language arts (ELA) but not in mathematics; achievement in destination magnet schools did not change, while their districts improved over the conversion period.
  • There is not evidence that magnet conversion itself played a role in the study schools' diversity or achievement, with the exception of the decline in the concentration of minority students in traditional magnet schools.