The Milwaukee voucher program remains one of the most tightly-regulated school choice programs of its kind in the nation, and it deserves better than the sloppy conclusions of Diane Ravitch. In a blog post earlier this week, Ravitch noted—correctly—that tougher standards applied to the Wisconsin state test went badly for all Milwaukee students, especially voucher recipients (just 10 percent of whom were proficient in reading, compared to 15 percent of their district peers). But then she reports that legislation expanding the Milwaukee choice program to Racine absolved private schools of the requirement that they administer the state tests to their voucher-bearing students. “Therefore,” she writes, “their proficiency rate will not be known or reported.”
Wisconsin has made a lot of progress in holding its voucher program more accountable.
This is absolutely untrue. For the past few years, students in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program have had to take the Wisconsin Knowledge Concepts Examination (WKCE), which is the same test administered to all public school students. When the Wisconsin legislature expanded the voucher program to Racine last year, nothing changed this requirement. In fact, test results for private schools in Racine and Milwaukee, as well as for public schools throughout Wisconsin, were recently recalculated to comply with a higher standard of proficiency. Those results are available to the public here—and they’ll continue to be made public.
What has changed is the release of a report card that assessed public schools using measures that included achievement growth on state tests, graduation rates, absenteeism, progress on closing achievement gaps, and several other factors. Ravitch could have argued that the 108 private schools presently accepting voucher students in Milwaukee and Racine should have collected this data so that they would be included in the report cards available to the public. But instead, she wrongly asserted that the test performance of voucher students will no longer be public.
This should not be dismissed as a simple error in reporting. The Wisconsin legislature has made a lot of progress in holding the nation’s oldest voucher program more accountable to parents and the taxpaying public, and researchers who have studied the program for years found that the public reporting of test scores may be responsible for some achievement gains not seen in traditional schools.
Arguably, this transparency also has inspired more recent legislation in Indiana and Louisiana, which both require voucher students to take the same tests as do students in public schools. And it would be good to see this trend spread to other states, to both new and existing programs. Test scores may be a muddy measure of a school’s performance (students using vouchers and those attending public schools may differ in important ways), but they are an important measure—and Wisconsin continues to recognize that.