Education voucher data misleading

In 1975, the United States went metric with the signing of the Metric Conversion Act by President Gerald Ford. Despite this federal law and millions of dollars spent on conversion efforts, Americans never bought into the metric system. More than 30 years later we still use miles per hour as opposed to kilometers per hour. The reason the effort to go metric failed was because it created more confusion than clarity.

The Cincinnati Enquirer's recent story "Voucher students doing poorly" (see here), reprinted in the Columbus Dispatch, was like America's experiment with the metric system. It created more mystification than enlightenment. The story reported that almost 3,000 EdChoice students-students who opt out of a failing public school to attend a private school of their choice on a state funded voucher-had received test scores from the Ohio Department of Education showing a sizable portion of these students failing various sections of the state's standardized achievement tests. The story purported to show that these poor results were evidence that the state's EdChoice program might not be getting "bang for the buck" for taxpayer dollars. Unfortunately, the connection between private school quality and state assessment data is tenuous to make. Here's why.

In 1997, Ohio moved public education toward a system of standards and accountability. The idea was straightforward-set academic standards at the level for what all public school students should be learning, and then hold them and their teachers accountable for seeing that the learning actually takes place. To ensure Ohio gets a bang from the $17 billion it spends annually on its public schools, the state spent millions over the last decade helping public schools and school districts align their academic programs with state standards and state assessments. Some educators complain that standards-based accountability is little more than teaching to the test. Others believe, as does my organization, that if the state standards are decent (they reflect what children need to know), the tests are fair (they are age appropriate and not biased), and schools and school districts are assisted in meeting these standards, then this is an appropriate way to hold public schools accountable.

It is not, however, a fair way to hold private schools accountable for the results of students they accept as part of the state's EdChoice voucher program. The problem with using state tests to measure private school effectiveness is that few, if any, private schools have actually aligned their academic programs with state standards, or with the state's assessment system. These schools measure success differently. They have standards different to the state's and oftentimes higher ones, they have their own methods of measuring student achievement (most use "nationally-normed tests" like the Iowa Test of Basic Skills), and they have their own models of teacher and professional development aligned to their academic standards. For example, rather than worry about how students do on the state's Ohio Graduation Tests, many private high schools focus on their students' ACT or SAT results (as Governor Strickland now wants to do with public schools). They also pay close attention to how many of their students graduate and actually go to college.

So, does this mean that private schools that receive state dollars ($4,500 to $5,300 per child depending on grade level) to educate needy children from failed urban public schools (receiving close to $13,000 per child) shouldn't be held accountable? No, they should be held accountable for delivering results using assessment tools that are fair to the schools, to the children using the vouchers, and to taxpayers.

Ideally, this would involve some form of pre-test to determine what the achievement level of a child was when he or she started the school year at the private school, and a post-test that could be given toward the end of the school year to show how much academic progress the child made during the year. Such assessments have been used to study the effectiveness of private voucher programs in New York City, Washington, D.C., and in Dayton. The Ohio Department of Education is doing something similar with its public schools through its use of "value-added data" (see here).

The EdChoice scholarship program is no panacea for what ails education in the Buckeye State, but it does offer an important escape route for up to 14,000 children otherwise trapped in faltering schools across the state. It is also worth noting that the performance of EdChoice students, as reported by the Enquirer, was on par with or better than the performance of students in Ohio's Big 8 urban districts, where 73 percent of EdChoice-eligible schools are located (see here). This is despite the fact that most of the schools aren't even teaching to the state standards or the state's tests.

Fortunately, Gov. Strickland saw fit to leave EdChoice intact in his budget request to the Ohio General Assembly. As the budget proposal moves through the General Assembly, it would be an injustice to these children and their families if anti-choice lawmakers were to kill off this program based on faulty and misleading achievement data.

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