Study Credits Choice With Raising Test Scores

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Student achievement in a New York City community district renowned for its school choice program is higher than in comparable city districts, and the results can be attributed to the program, a new study concludes.

The study, which has not yet been published, examines Community School District 4 in East Harlem, where the 24-year-old program that allows parents to place their children in any of a number of small alternative schools has been held up nationwide as a model of public school choice.

Mark Schneider and Paul Teske, political scientists at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, say that reading and math scores of students in District 4 started to climb after the choice program was introduced in 1974.

Although reading scores began to decline in the late 1980s and math scores leveled off, District 4 students today are scoring at a level 80 percent higher than citywide averages and almost twice as high as in 1974, when the district's scores were among the lowest in New York City, the study says.

The most important question addressed by the study is whether the district's achievement can be attributed to its school choice program. Starting in 1974 with Central Park East Elementary School, District 4 created numerous small alternative schools and allowed parents to choose an elementary program outside their neighborhood attendance zones. All of the district's intermediate schools are part of the choice plan.

The 14,000-student district is one of 32 subdistricts in New York City that serve elementary and junior high school students. The city's central board of education governs high schools.

Critical Factors

The authors address critiques of the District 4 choice program that have suggested factors other than school choice can principally explain any achievement gains. For example, some researchers have argued that the district began to attract students from wealthier New York City neighborhoods who were better prepared academically.

Others have suggested that the district's performance can be attributed to extra funding, smaller schools, or unusually strong administrative leadership.

The authors contend that even after controlling for those factors, District 4's achievement gains can be attributed to parental choice.

"Our results show that it is not smaller schools that drive District 4 performance nor is it higher [socioeconomic] students 'imported' into the district that drive higher performance," the authors state.

Another notable finding is that school choice in East Harlem does not appear to have had a negative effect on the performance of the students who remain in its neighborhood schools, who still make up a majority of the district's enrollment.

"There is no evidence that neighborhood schools have been left behind," the study states. "Indeed, the data show quite clearly that choice in District 4 has not produced any 'loser' school."

Because parents can opt out of neighborhood schools they consider poor, "choice has put competitive pressure on all schools to improve," the authors contend.

More To Be Done

The researchers stress that while student achievement in District 4 has improved over time, it remains far from acceptable.

"It would be impressive indeed if we could argue that choice, or any reform, could break the relationship between test scores and parent socioeconomic status," they write. "No reform has been able to achieve that."

Peter W. Cookson Jr. of Teachers College, Columbia University, who has criticized what he views as the oversimplified use of test data to bolster school choice, said he had questions about the new study.

"I'm skeptical that these kinds of studies can pinpoint the cause of student-achievement gains," said Mr. Cookson, who has written two books about school choice.

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