Testing voucher students: A reasonable quality-control measure with minimal threats to school diversity

Jay Greene wants school-choice supporters to relax the testing mandates in the newest and largest voucher programs in the nation. Specifically, these programs require participating students to take their state’s public school assessment, which Greene likens to adhering to a “state vision of a good education.”

Let’s hope these supporters reject his appeal. It’s taken quite a push to get where we are now: a level of accountability in relatively few private school choice programs that may be partly responsible for their success and their political support. Hitting the reverse button would only halt the current momentum of the choice movement, while removing one of the few quality-control mechanisms in place for these programs.

To be sure, Professor Greene is not the first to raise concerns about the use of state assessments. His argument is by now familiar: Forcing government test mandates on private schools dilutes what makes these schools private and will force all schools to become cookie-cutter copies. What if families want something other than the state vision of a good education “encapsulated in state standards and testing?” Greene writes.

It’s not an unreasonable concern; Mike Petrilli, for instance, once pondered the conflict between public education’s “two p’s”—parents and the public. Allowing parents to access a multitude of choices—and not forcing them into the Procrustean Bed of public school—is one of the reasons those of us at Fordham support this reform.

But how much of a threat are the state tests in terms of dictating curricular choices? As Jay knows from our ongoing Common Core debate, even the public schools are all too willing to ignore the instructional nudges coming from state standards and tests.

Meanwhile, there’s a strong case for state testing.

Outcomes on state assessments give parents critical information about their school choices

Comparable achievement data are often the only objective, independently generated data that families can use to decide which school—be it district, charter, or private—is in the best interest of their child. Greene says that markets generate consumer information without government mandates just fine. Tell that to GreatSchools.org, which has begged voucher-redeeming private schools for their norm-referenced test outcomes if states haven’t mandated their release. Often, GreatSchools’ requests go unanswered.

It makes comparisons easier

Requiring a common assessment of all publicly funded students makes it possible to directly compare student achievement and school effectiveness across the district, charter, and voucher sectors. Elected policymakers who are paying the bill for private school choice deserve a report card of sorts to tell if their investment is producing results.

It may boost student achievement

University of Arkansas researchers studying the Milwaukee voucher program found, in the final year of its five-year analysis, that the program’s newly enacted test-based accountability might explain the “significantly higher levels of reading gains” for voucher students.

It won’t scare away schools

The Fordham Institute found that testing requirements rank among the least important considerations for private school leaders when deciding whether to participate in voucher programs. Just 25 percent said that state assessment mandates figured importantly in that decision. (Far more significant to them are mandates that force them to alter their admissions criteria or religious mission.)

It’s scalable

A sliding-scale can be used with participating private schools: Those that enroll few voucher students should largely be left alone, while those that rely more on state funding should be held to account for their voucher students’ performance. This is the policy in Louisiana, where Greene wants to see testing mandates relaxed. But the state should stay the course; it’s keeping the worst performers from participating in the voucher program until they improve.

Without standards, quality isn’t a given

Has Jay ever looked at the voucher sector in Milwaukee or the charter sector in Ohio? They are rife with schools that are mediocre or worse, by anyone’s standards. Asking schools to make some minimal progress on state tests is one way to keep public funds out of abysmal schools—and to guard the choice movement against charges that it doesn’t care about outcomes.

Of course, this is not a perfect policy. There are risks to holding private schools to state academic standards, especially the “slippery slope” to further regulations. States should intervene in their private schools only when the public’s tax dollars are involved. But life is full of trade-offs. States that have insisted on the assessments of voucher students have made an important statement: Every child educated at public expense ought to learn the three R's. They shouldn’t go back on that now.

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