Test scores are not enough to measure school choice success
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A report from the Education Department’s Institute of Education Science made waves last week as it found the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (D.C. OSP) — the nation’s only federal private school choice program – negatively impacted student test scores in the first year of participation.

Indeed, there is more work to do to ensure all students who benefit from school choice can excel beginning on day one.

But the IES findings shouldn’t cast doubt on the efficacy of private school choice, which has proved, time and again, to be a game-changer for students.

In fact, the Institute found in previous reports the D.C. OSP produces positive effects on test scores and graduation rates. The results from this year’s study underscore why context matters in evaluating the success of school choice.

What is the most critical caveat to the study? 

It analyzed the test scores of D.C. students after only one year in the D.C. OSP. Research on private school choice shows student achievement tends to start out neutral or negative in the first year of programs and trends positive by the second or third years.

This makes sense.

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It takes time for any student to acclimate to a new school environment, complete with new teachers, new classmates and new expectations. And students in D.C.’s program come from some of the most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods of the city and in many cases were attending poor-performing schools, making time to catch up especially critical.

 

Simply put, a year is not enough to provide a definitive critique.

What’s more, the student sample from which IES based its research was not only much smaller, but it also skewed much younger than previous long-term evaluations of the D.C. OSP. Consider the fact that 36 percent of the study’s participants were in kindergarten or first grade, and a quarter of the entire sample was in kindergarten alone.

Math testing, in particular, for this population can be volatile. Not to mention that students entering into the beginning of their K-12 educational pipeline will naturally need time to adjust to the very concept of schooling and will have fluctuating test scores.

Evaluations of student performance beyond testing also show us that participants in the D.C. program are more likely to graduate from high school than students who were offered, but did not receive, a voucher through the DC OSP lottery process.

A 2010 federal analysis showed that 91 percent of DC OSP students graduated on time, compared to 70 percent of their public school peers. And these positive outcomes were substantially higher for participating minority students.

Perhaps the most promising data from the report relates to parental involvement and perceptions of safety. The IES report found that parents of middle- and high-school students participating in the D.C. choice program were more involved in their child’s education at home – a key component to student success.

And across the board, choice parents were significantly more likely to view their child’s school as very safe.

These results are critically important as we strive to paint a complete picture about the power of school choice. We can’t undervalue the fact that freedom of choice has enabled District parents to advocate for educational equity in a city where the average white family has 13 times the wealth of the average black family.

School choice programs like D.C.’s empower parents, especially low-income parents, to choose the best educational options for their children.

The leverage to leave an undesirable situation in favor of a better one provides an insurance policy on their children’s future — a policy that empowers parents with something they lack in many other parts of their lives: control. That’s a landmark victory for urban parents, and for education reform efforts across the country.

There have previously been 15 gold-standard studies of private school choice programs, 10 of which are positive and three are neutral. Our question going forward should not be whether school choice programs work – because the evidence shows they do – but rather how we replicate their success.

This will be especially critical as Congress considers a policy that will empower families to take ownership of their children’s education through the establishment of a federal education tax credit.

As with every policy issue, there is room for improvement in the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program to offer real change and opportunity for students beginning on day one. 

Fortunately, a growing movement of parents, policymakers, employers and civic leaders are committed to creating a system where all students succeed, and all parents have choices when it comes to their children’s education.

Kevin P. Chavous is a founding board member for the American Federation for Children. He is a former member of the Council of the District of Columbia and a former chairman of D.C.’s Education Committee. Chavous was responsible for enacting numerous education reforms in D.C. Chavous is a former chair of the Democrats for Education Reform and of the Black Alliance for Educational Options.


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