In Robyn Rennick’s post on Florida’s McKay Scholarships for Students With Disabilities last week, she argued that standardized testing measures are “inappropriate,” even “cruel,” for disabled children due to their diverse levels of achievement and in some cases immeasurable levels of progress. But this assumes that standardized testing is a “one size fits all” accountability measure. In reality, there are dozens, even hundreds, of standardized assessments that are designed for every segment of the student population – whether children are learning self-care or calculus. The choice of test can be left to the private school, not the state.
More importantly, standardized testing is perhaps the only way to provide parents with the data they need to make informed choices about schools, and it is emerging as the overwhelming accountability trend for school voucher programs nationwide. Without standardized testing data, the McKay program cannot prove that it’s effective for students – the vast majority of whom are not intellectually disabled and spend most of their time in classrooms alongside typical students. According to the most recent state Department of Education report, only 7.5 percent of all McKay students are labeled Intellectually Disabled, though there are clearly some others with cognitive deficits who are labeled with other disabilities, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Every voucher program enacted or expanded in 2011 and 2012 (in Indiana, Ohio, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Colorado and Washington, D.C.) – except for the McKay Scholarship in 2011 – included standardized testing measures. What’s more, the Romney Education Plan, which proposes to voucherize federal special-education funding, includes annual student accountability testing for private schools precisely so that parents can make informed decisions. McKay is clearly behind that trend, which is an unfortunate development for this once ground-breaking program.
The voucher programs available to more than 50 percent of all K-12 students in Louisiana and Indiana include both special and general education students, and they require all of them to take the annual state assessment. In Indiana, the only voucher students who would be exempt from the state assessment are the same ones who are exempt in traditional public schools – students with significant intellectual deficits. In addition, Indiana has developed some interesting solutions to deal with potentially statistically invalid testing results due to small enrollment in private schools.
In Milwaukee, where legislators learned the hard way that private schools need to be held accountable and mandated a state standardized testing requirement 20 years after the voucher program began, about 10 percent of participants are special-needs students. Without that data, Patrick J. Wolf would not have been able to show in his study that voucher students there are performing at higher levels than their public school counterparts in reading and math in the upper grades, for example. And without standardized progress testing, McKay schools have little defense against reports that they are occasionally magnets for fraud and abuse of public funds.
The newest special needs voucher program – Ohio’s Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship – as well as one of the oldest programs – Utah’s Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarship – also require the annual assessment of students. In Ohio, like the Louisiana, Indiana and Wisconsin programs, which admit but were not designed for special needs students, private schools must administer the state assessment test annually to scholarship students. In Utah, participating private schools must annually assess each scholarship student’s academic progress using any “formal” testing procedure they choose that is “carried out under prescribed and uniform conditions.” And those results must be shared with each child’s parents and a representative from the school district.
A 2008 legislative performance audit of the Utah voucher program revealed that 89 percent of parents reported that their disabled child’s academic achievement had increased in private school. Perhaps many McKay parents are satisfied with the program, but do they know if their children are making academic progress? As an attorney who represents Florida parents of disabled students, I can report anecdotally that many McKay parents don’t know until it may be too late whether their children are learning the skills they need to be gainfully employed. Are our dedicated school reformers in the Florida Legislature willing to stand by and watch our once visionary voucher program fall behind the curve? I certainly hope not.
Allison Hertog is a member of the Step Up for Students governance board and is the founding attorney of Florida School Partners, a private law firm whose mission is to help parents access the right placement – public or private – for their special needs children.