Accountability Opinion

A Double Standard on Test Scores

By Diane Ravitch — May 11, 2010 4 min read
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Dear Deborah,

Last month, a very important report was released about the voucher program in Milwaukee. It did not receive nearly enough attention, because its findings have major implications for a longstanding debate about the efficacy of vouchers. It was compiled by the School Choice Demonstration Project, which is based at the University of Arkansas, and written primarily by Patrick J. Wolf; the co-principal investigators were Jay Greene, who is known to be a strong supporter of school choice, and John Witte, who has written skeptically about Milwaukee’s voucher program. Major funding for the School Choice Demonstration was provided by foundations that are known to be pro-choice.

The report concluded that students in the voucher program “generally are achieving achievement growth rates that are comparable to similar MPS [Milwaukee Public School] students.”

The voucher program got its start in 1990, the first in the nation, and it expanded rapidly after 1998, when the Wisconsin State Supreme Court ruled it to be constitutional. Today, nearly 20,000 students attend 127 different non-public schools in Milwaukee, and another 17,000 are enrolled in 59 charter schools. Meanwhile, enrollment in the Milwaukee public schools has steadily declined since 1998.

This is the third annual evaluation of Milwaukee vouchers, and the third that has failed to uncover significant differences between students who go to voucher schools and students in the regular public schools. Both groups have very low performance, and neither has an advantage. Of course, this study is not the end of the story; indeed, this project will continue to evaluate the voucher program in the years ahead. Maybe the voucher students someday will forge ahead, but it has not happened as yet.

For years, advocates of vouchers and school choice in general had argued that competition would improve all sectors; that the public schools would get better if they were compelled to compete for students; and that a rising tide would lift all boats. That has not happened in Milwaukee.

The reaction of choice proponents to the latest study was fascinating. Some conservative commentators declared that choice was not supposed to raise test scores, it was just supposed to provide choice, which was a good thing in itself. Rick Hess opined that the point of choice was not to produce higher test scores, but to give educators the chance “to create more focused and effective schools” and “to solve problems in smarter ways.” Whether that is happening in Milwaukee is far from clear. Charles Murray wrote in The New York Times that “standardized test scores are a terrible way to decide whether one school is better than another...” and that choice gives parents the chance to send their children to a school with the kind of curriculum they want. Murray wrongly believed that the Milwaukee study reviewed the performance of both vouchers and charters and found both wanting. His article was erroneously titled “Why Charter Schools Fail the Test,” when the study referred only to students in voucher schools, not charter schools.

Meanwhile, the legislature in Illinois came close to passing a new voucher program for the city of Chicago, which would have been even larger than the Milwaukee program, giving private school vouchers to 30,000 students. Legislation to create vouchers worth about $3,700 (about one-third the cost of educating each student) was passed by the Democrat-controlled Senate and failed in the Democrat-controlled House. I doubt that anyone in the debate mentioned that vouchers would have no effect on students’ test scores.

Back to Milwaukee. When the National Assessment of Educational Progress reported state scores in reading a few weeks ago, it turned out that African-American students in Wisconsin have about the lowest scores in the nation. Two-thirds of the African-American students in that state live in Milwaukee, so it seems fair to say that they gained little or nothing from the flowering of vouchers and charters. In fact, African-American students in Wisconsin have test scores that are about the same as those of African-American students in Mississippi. The competition with charters and vouchers did not lead to higher scores for African-American students in regular public schools. There was no rising tide, no boats were lifted.

Considering the fact that the public schools in Milwaukee and elsewhere are regularly pummeled for failing to raise test scores of African-American students, one begins to sense a double standard at work. When public schools fail to raise test scores, it is a sign of their decrepitude and failure; when voucher schools fail to raise test scores, well, so what, they weren’t supposed to do that.

Now, with the Obama administration firmly in the charter camp, touting the benefits of competition, expect to see a continuing effort to dismantle public education. I just wish that choice proponents would stop promising that charters and vouchers will bring us closer to that date when 100 percent of all children reach proficiency. If evidence mattered, they would tone down their rhetoric. But I won’t hold my breath.


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