voucher verdict

Students’ math scores drop for years after using a private school voucher in country’s largest program

Ft. Wayne, IN: Students walk past "The Road to Success" sign displayed in the hallway at Horizon Christian Academy in Ft. Wayne, Indiana December 20, 2016. Horizon Christian Academy is one of more than 300 schools that accepts vouchers in Indiana, which has the largest statewide voucher program in the nation.

Low-income students who use a voucher to attend private school in Indiana see their math scores drop for several years as a result, according to a new study.

The findings are a blow to the argument that poor students benefit from the choice to attend a private school, a policy championed by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

“Our results do not provide robust support that the [voucher program] has been successful to date at improving student achievement for low-income students who use a voucher to switch from a public to a private school,” conclude the researchers, Mark Berends of Notre Dame and Joseph Waddington of the University of Kentucky.

The paper, focuses on the initial rollout of what has become the largest school voucher program in the country. In the most recent school year, over 35,000 students were enrolled in the initiative.

The study examines a few thousand low-income students who switched from public to private school using a voucher starting in the 2011-12 school year.

Notably, the authors show that low-income students who used a voucher had slightly higher starting test scores than low-income kids who stayed in public schools. This gives credence to fears that a voucher program could concentrate the most disadvantaged students in the public school system.

The authors attempt to control for these and other factors to isolate the effect of attending a private school. (Unlike some voucher studies, this paper is not able to compare students who randomly won or lost a chance to attend private school — a stronger method.)

In math, the results, which focus on grades five through eight, are consistently negative. Even four years into the program, students who use a voucher had lower test scores than public school students.

In English, there were no clear effects. Here, there was some evidence that voucher students improved over time, though there were no statistically significant positive effects after four years.

The results were generally consistent for students of different races, genders, and locations. The findings, though, might not hold for more affluent students or the increasing numbers of participating students who never attended a public school to begin with. Neither group is accounted for in this study.

The results, published this week in the peer-reviewed Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, are largely in line with an earlier version of the same study — with a key exception. The first paper suggested that declines in math disappeared for students who used a voucher for multiple years. The latest version finds that the negative effects seem to persist for at least four years.

The results, then, undermine the argument that recent studies showing drops in voucher students’ test scores just represent students adjusting to private school. A recent study in Washington, D.C. showed substantial drops in math achievement persisted into a second year. Negative results also were consistent in an Ohio voucher study. In Louisiana, math and reading test scores bounced back according to one method but not another after three years; drops were consistent in social studies.

Voucher advocates have responded by arguing that tests should not be the sole judge of these programs’ success, pointing to more favorable research looking at high school graduation and college enrollment. Despite test score declines, a recent study showed that Louisiana’s program had no effect or somewhat positive effects on college enrollment.

“Although academic achievement outcomes are important for researchers, policymakers, and practitioners to consider, parents make schooling decisions for their children based on a multitude of factors, including academics, location, safety, and religion,” Waddington and Berends write. “Therefore, researchers need to examine outcomes beyond test scores.”

Critics might also point to other concerns not captured in the study: A Chalkbeat investigation in 2017 found that about one in 10 Indiana private schools that accepted a voucher had policies that explicitly discriminated against LGBT students.

That’s perfectly legal under Indiana’s system, as well as the vast majority of publicly funded private school choice programs.

Are Children Learning

Second study shows Indianapolis charter students fare better on tests

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

The second study in a week shows strong test scores for students at Indianapolis charter schools, bolstering the claims of advocates in a city where school choice continues to expand.

Indianapolis elementary students who attend mayor-sponsored charter schools beginning in kindergarten — and remain in the same schools — make bigger improvements on state tests than their peers in traditional schools across the city, according to the latest study.

The study contributes to emerging research that suggest that charter schools that are well managed and have good instruction can be successful, said co-author Hardy Murphy, a clinical professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the IUPUI School of Education.

The results of the study indicate Indianapolis charter school students are doing better than they would’ve done if they hadn’t enrolled in charter schools, Murphy said.

“This does not appear to have happened by chance,” he said. “I believe that the school experiences and the instructional teachers of those schools they are enrolled in are actually a big part of the results that we are seeing,”

The educational landscape in Indianapolis is defined by school choice. About 18,000 students who live in Marion County attend charter schools, and thousands more transfer to nearby districts or attend private schools with vouchers, according to state data. In recent years, the state’s largest district, Indianapolis Public Schools, has also become a national model for partnerships with charter schools. That makes understanding school performance essential for parents — but unpacking whether schools actually help boost student achievement can be particularly thorny for researchers.

With this study, Murphy said he and co-author Sandi Cole, director of the Center on Education and Lifelong Learning at Indiana University Bloomington, hope to disentangle one factor that makes studying charter schools difficult: the dips in test scores that students often experience after transferring to new schools. Murphy’s research focuses on students who began in charter schools in kindergarten and compares them to similar students in traditional public schools in Indianapolis.

“It’s time to move beyond the debate about whether or not charter schools are effective and start talking about, when they are effective, why, and for whom?” Murphy said, adding that successful approaches can be used in other settings.

The study focuses solely on students who attend charter schools authorized by the mayor’s office. For the control group, the study included township districts as well as Indianapolis Public Schools. The researchers plan to present their results to the education committee of the Indianapolis City-County Council and the 2019 Conference on Academic Research in Education.

The findings add to a growing body of research on Indianapolis charter schools. Last week, the Stanford-based group CREDO released a report that found that students at charter schools had test score gains that mirrored the state average, while Indianapolis Public Schools students made smaller gains on math and reading tests than their peers across the state. Another recent study found that when students moved to charter schools their test scores held steady.

To Do

Tennessee’s new ed chief says troubleshooting testing is first priority

PHOTO: (Caiaimage/Robert Daly)

Penny Schwinn knows that ensuring a smooth testing experience for Tennessee students this spring will be her first order of business as the state’s new education chief.

Even before Gov.-elect Bill Lee announced her hiring on Thursday, she was poring over a recent report by the state’s chief investigator about what went wrong with TNReady testing last spring and figuring out her strategy for a different outcome.

“My first days will be spent talking with educators and superintendents in the field to really understand the scenario here in Tennessee,” said Schwinn, who’s been chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas since 2016.

“I’ll approach this problem with a healthy mixture of listening and learning,” she added.

Schwinn’s experience with state assessment programs in Texas and in Delaware — where she was assistant secretary of education — is one of the strengths cited by Lee in selecting her for one of his most critical cabinet posts.

The Republican governor-elect has said that getting TNReady right is a must after three straight years of missteps in administration and scoring in Tennessee’s transition to online testing. Last year, technical disruptions interrupted so many testing days that state lawmakers passed emergency legislation ordering that poor scores couldn’t be used to penalize students, teachers, schools, or districts.

Schwinn, 36, recalls dealing with testing headaches during her first days on the job in Texas.

“We had testing disruptions. We had test booklets mailed to the wrong schools. We had answer documents in testing booklets. We had online administration failures,” she told Chalkbeat. “From that, we brought together teachers, superintendents, and experts to figure out solutions, and we had a near-perfect administration of our assessment the next year.”

What she learned in the process: the importance of tight vendor management, including setting clear expectations of what’s expected.

She plans to use the same approach in Tennessee, working closely with people in her new department and Questar Assessment, the state’s current vendor.

“Our job is to think about how to get online testing as close to perfect as possible for our students and educators, and that is going to be a major focus,” she said.

The test itself has gotten good reviews in Tennessee; it’s the online miscues that have many teachers and parents questioning the switch from paper-and-pencil exams. Schwinn sees no choice but to forge ahead online and is quick to list the benefits.

“If you think about how children learn and access information today, many are getting that information from hand-held devices and computers,” she said, “so reflecting that natural experience in our classrooms is incredibly important.”

Schwinn said computerized testing also holds promise for accommodating students with disabilities and provides for a more engaging experience for all students.

“When you look at the multiple-choice tests that we took in school and compare that to an online platform where students can watch videos, perform science experiments, do drag-and-drop and other features, students are just more engaged in the content,” she said.

“It’s a more authentic experience,” she added, “and therefore a better measure of learning.”

Schwinn plans to examine Tennessee’s overall state testing program to look for ways to reduce the number of minutes dedicated to assessment and also to elevate transparency.

She also will oversee the transition when one or more companies take over the state’s testing program beginning next school year. Former Commissioner Candice McQueen ordered a new request for proposals from vendors to provide paper testing for younger students and online testing for older ones. State officials have said they hope to award the contract by spring.

In Texas, a 2018 state audit criticized Schwinn’s handling of two major education contracts, including a no-bid special education contract that lost the state more than $2 million.

In Tennessee, an evaluation committee that includes programmatic, assessment, and technology experts will help to decide the new testing contract, and state lawmakers on the legislature’s Government Operations Committee plan to provide another layer of oversight.

Spring testing in Tennessee is scheduled to begin on April 15. You can learn more about TNReady on the state education department’s website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information about problems with the handling of two education contracts in Texas.