School Choice & Charters

Study Finds ‘Voucher Effect’ In Fla. Test Gains

By Jessica L. Sandham — February 21, 2001 5 min read
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Florida schools that faced the threat of vouchers if they failed to raise their students’ scores made achievement gains on state tests that surpassed those of other schools, according to an evaluation of the state’s accountability and school choice program.

The report, which was released last week by the Manhattan Institute and Florida State University, identifies what its author describes as a “voucher effect” operating on schools facing the prospect of having their students qualify for the publicly funded tuition aid. That effect motivated those low-performing schools to make greater gains on the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test, or FCAT, the study concludes.

For More Information

The report, “An Evaluation of the Florida A-Plus Accountability and School Choice Program,” is available from the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.

“Just having an accountability system in place, a system in which performance is measured, that alone appeared to improve performance across the state,” said Jay P. Greene, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a research associate at Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, which also backed the report. “But there was an extra motivation that existed among schools that faced the prospect of vouchers.”

This is not the first time the Harvard program and the Manhattan Institute, a think tank based in New York City, have undertaken research that found positive effects from school choice programs. This past summer, for example, the two groups released separate studies indicating that black students in various cities who used privately financed vouchers to attend private schools had made academic gains over their public school counterparts. (“Privately Financed Vouchers Help Black Students, Two Studies Find,” Sept. 6, 2000.) Under Florida’s accountability program, passed by the legislature in 1999, the state assigns letter grades to schools based on their performance on the FCAT. The study calls that test a “reliable measure of student performance,” based on the fact that students’ results on the exam correlate with those on the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition.

Jay P. Greene

Students in schools graded F for two out of four years qualify to receive state-financed vouchers of up to $4,000 to help cover the cost of attending private schools, including those with religious affiliations. A lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the voucher program is pending in the state supreme court.

To date, roughly 50 students from two elementary schools in Pensacola are the only youngsters receiving vouchers through the state program. No additional students qualified for the program last year because the schools assigned an F from the state in 1999 raised their test scores sufficiently to pull themselves out of the failing schools category. (“Vouchers Stall as Fla. Schools Up Their Scores,” July 12, 2000.)

An ‘F’ Effect?

The study found that schools graded A, B, or C in 1999 logged similar gains on their FCAT scores in reading, writing, and mathematics in 2000. Schools graded D made slightly greater gains, meanwhile, and those graded F “experienced increases in test scores that were more than twice as large as those experienced by schools with higher state-assigned grades.”

For example, on the FCAT math test, which uses a scale of 100 to 500, schools that received grades of A in 1999 improved by an average of 11.92 points. Schools graded B and C improved by 9.3 points and 11.81 points, respectively, and those graded D improved by 16.06 points. Those schools assigned an F grade, however, improved by an average of 25.66 points.

To further isolate the extent to which the F-graded schools’ gains on the FCAT were influenced by the threat of vouchers, rather than simply the desire to improve their performance, Mr. Greene compared the gains made by higher-scoring F schools with those of lower-scoring D schools. Schools falling into those two categories likely shared many of the same characteristics and challenges, the report says, with one exception: F-graded schools faced the prospect of vouchers if they did not make substantial improvements, while D-graded schools did not.

The researchers found that higher-scoring F schools logged higher gains than lower-scoring D schools. The difference in performance between those two groups, the report suggests, shows “that vouchers provide especially strong incentives to public schools to improve.”

Patrick J. Heffernan, the president of Floridians for School Choice, an advocacy group, said the new research demonstrates that “holding schools accountable to parents has a much greater effect than holding them accountable to government authorities.”

But at the 700-student West Gate Elementary School in West Palm Beach, Principal Thais Villaneuva attributes the school’s gains on state tests to its long-term commitment to standards-based instruction and staff development, rather than the threat of vouchers.

The school, which serves many students from poor families, went from receiving an F from the state in 1999 to garnering a C last year. Those changes took place over a five-year period, not just in the course of one year, she said.

If the school’s staff members were particularly motivated to help their students achieve at higher levels on last year’s state tests, Ms. Villaneuva said, it was because they didn’t like the stigma of being labeled a failing school, not because they were afraid of vouchers.

“We could not have cared less about the vouchers,” Ms. Villaneuva said. “It was being called a failing school. We knew we weren’t a failing school, and we wanted to show that.”

And David Clark, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association, said that the study was a distraction from what Florida really needs—not more vouchers, but a greater long-term investment in public schools.

“When you put resources and effort into doing well on a standardized test, and you drop everything else to do that one thing, you should see results,” said Mr. Clark, whose union is part of a coalition that is challenging the voucher program in court. “The question is what value is that in the long run, when we haven’t made any of the substantive changes that we need to make in our schools.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 21, 2001 edition of Education Week as Study Finds ‘Voucher Effect’ In Fla. Test Gains

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