vouching for vouchers

Louisiana vouchers have led to big drops in test scores, but they also might boost college enrollment

Students who won a school voucher in Louisiana to attend their top-ranked private high school were 6 percentage points more likely to enroll in college than students who lost the lottery, according to a new study.

The findings are reasonably good news for voucher supporters, who recently had to confront huge drops in test scores because of Louisiana’s program. Still, the results were not statistically significant — meaning the researchers can’t confidently say that the voucher made the difference.

It’s the latest attempt to quantify the effects of school vouchers, which allow students to attend private school using public dollars. They are a favored policy of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, albeit one she’s so far had little success at pushing from Washington.

This study, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, focuses just on the first group of students who took advantage of Louisiana’s controversial voucher program starting in 2012.

Previous research on student achievement in the initial years of the program was decidedly negative. It found that students in elementary and middle school who won a voucher saw their test scores decline sharply. By year three of the program, some students had bounced back, but not others.

That’s why the latest results are particularly notable: the impact of vouchers on college enrollment was neutral, even potentially positive. Voucher recipients, who were lower-income and largely black, saw enrollment rates rise from 54 percent to 60 percent, the study estimates.

The data could bolster the case of school choice advocates who have increasingly rejected test scores as their benchmark of success, pointing instead to high school graduation or college enrollment rates.

“The pattern in the literature seems to suggest that schools affect students in positive ways that are not always detected in standardized tests,” write the authors Heidi Erickson, Jonathan Mills, and Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas.

(Debates on whether this is true have grown increasingly prominent, with some choice advocates highlighting studies where results between test scores and longer-run outcomes point in the same direction. This study doesn’t look at test scores.)

Mark Dynarski, a researcher who has studied voucher programs and reviewed the new Louisiana research at Chalkbeat’s request, said the study was sound. But he notes an important caveat: because of how the state allocates vouchers, the study only looks at students who won one for their top-ranked private school.

That doesn’t include students who got a voucher to attend a lower-ranked private school or students whose private schools not popular enough to need a lottery.

“Essentially the study is comparing how much better these first-choice schools are compared to ones parents rank lower, including public schools,” said Dynarski. “Parents who win a second or third-choice lottery can elect not to send their child there and instead stick with the public school.”

Of the nearly 10,000 students who applied for a voucher in Louisiana for the 2012-13 school year, the study looks at the less than 500 who were high school students who won a voucher lottery. The small sample may help explain why the study can’t confidently say whether vouchers had any effect on college enrollment.

Wolf said the study’s approach was the only option given how Louisiana distributes vouchers, and that the approach makes sense in light of the goal of the policy. “The first choice school is the one parents and students would most prefer to attend,” he wrote in an email. “That’s the whole intention of school choice.”

test scores

How did your school perform on TNReady tests? Search here for results

Student's group

Nearly 700 schools – more than 40 percent of schools in Tennessee – improved in student performance across most grades and subjects, according to a state release of 2018 test results. And 88 school districts or 60 percent met or surpassed student growth expectations.

Test score data for every public school in Tennessee was released Thursday by the state Department of Education.

You can search our database below to find out how students in your school performed. The results show the percentage of students in each school who are performing at or above grade level.

Note: The state doesn’t release data for an exam if fewer than 5 percent of students scored on grade level or if 95 percent of students were above grade level. An asterisk signifies that a school’s score falls in one of those two categories. 

colorado accountability

Test results can spell relief or gloom for state’s lowest performing schools and districts

File photo of sixth-grade students at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. (Photo by Craig Walker, The Denver Post)

All three school Colorado districts under the gun to improve their academics showed some gains on test results released Thursday — but the numbers may not be enough to save one, Adams 14, from facing increased state intervention.

Of the three districts, only the Commerce City-based Adams 14 faces a fall deadline to bump up its state ratings. If the district doesn’t move up on the five-step scale, the state could close schools, merge Adams 14 with a higher-performing neighbor, or order other shake-ups.

The school district of Westminster and the Aguilar school district, also on state-ordered improvement plans, have until 2019 to boost their state ratings.

The ratings, expected in a few weeks, are compiled largely from the scores released Thursday which are based on spring tests.

District officials in Adams 14 celebrated gains at some individual schools, but as a district, achievement remained mostly dismal.

“We continue to see a positive trend in both English language arts and math, but we still have work to do,” said Jamie Ball, manager of accountability and assessment for Adams 14.

The district’s high school, Adams City High School, which has its own state order to improve its ratings by this fall, posted some declines in student achievement.

District officials said they are digging into their data in anticipation of another hearing before the State Board of Education soon.

In a turn likely to invite higher scrutiny, district schools that have been working with an outside firm, Beyond Textbooks, showed larger declines in student progress.

In part, Ball said that was because Beyond Textbooks wasn’t fully up and running until last school year’s second semester. Still, the district renewed its contract with the Arizona-based firm and expanded it to include more schools.

“Its a learning curve,” said Superintendent Javier Abrego. “People have to get comfortable and familiar with it.”

For state ratings of districts and high schools, about 40 percent will be based on the district’s growth scores — that’s a state measurement of how much students improved year-over-year, when compared with students with a similar test history. A score of 50 is generally considered an average year’s growth. Schools and districts with many struggling students must post high growth scores for them to get students to grade level.

In the case of Adams 14, although growth scores rose in both math and English, the district failed to reach the average of 50.

Credit: Sam Park
PARCC, district on state plans
Credit: Sam Park

Westminster district officials, meanwhile, said that while they often criticize the state’s accountability system, this year they were excited to look at their test data and look forward to seeing their coming ratings.

The district has long committed to a model called competency-based education, despite modest gains in achievement. The model does away with grade levels. Students progress through classes based on when they can prove they learned the content, rather than moving up each year. District officials have often said the state’s method of testing students doesn’t recognize the district’s leaning model.

“It’s clear to us 2017-18 was a successful year,” said Superintendent Pam Swanson. “This is the third year we have had upward progress. We believe competency-based education is working.”

The district posted gains in most tests and categories — although the scores show the extent of its challenge. Fewer than one in five — 19.6 percent of its third graders — met or exceeded expectations in literacy exams, up from 15.9 percent last year.

Students in Westminster also made strong improvements in literacy as the district posted a growth score of 55, surpassing the state average.

Westminster officials also highlighted gains for particular groups of students. Gaps in growth among students are narrowing.

Schools still on state ordered plans for improvement, and deadline for improvement

  • Bessemer Elementary, Pueblo, 2018
  • Heroes Middle, Pueblo, 2018
  • Risley International Academy, Pueblo, 2018
  • HOPE Online Elementary, Douglas 2019
  • HOPE Online Middle, Douglas, 2019
  • Prairie heights Middle, Greeley, 2019
  • Manaugh Elementary, Montezuma, 2019
  • Martinez Elementary, Greeley, 2019

Look up school results here.

One significant gap that narrowed in Westminster was between students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a common measure of poverty, and those who don’t. In the math tests given to elementary and middle school students, the difference in growth scores between the two groups narrowed to three points from 10 points the year before, with scores hovering around 50.

Results in individual schools that are on state plans for improvement were more mixed. Three schools in Pueblo, for instance, all saw decreases in literacy growth, but increases in math. One middle school in Greeley, Prairie Heights Middle School, had significant gains in literacy growth.

The Aurora school district managed to get off the state’s watchlist last year, but one of its high schools is already on a state plan for improvement. Aurora Central High School has until 2019 to earn a higher state rating or face further state interventions.

Aurora Central High’s math gains on the SAT test exceeded last year’s, but improvement on the SAT’s literacy slowed. The school’s growth scores in both subjects still remain well below 50.

Look up high school test results here.