A 73-second exchange between Gov. Rick Scott and capital reporters last week has raised the profile of testing in Florida’s scholarship for low-income children, but done little to deepen the debate. The question of testing is a legitimate one, but cannot be separated from the educational context.
Gov. Scott had no time to deal with such complexity. He was fielding rapid-fire questions after a state Cabinet meeting when he was asked whether students on vouchers should take the same test as those in public schools. His first answer: “Look, if you’re going to have state dollars, you’re going to have similar standards.” On followup, he said: “I believe anybody that gets state dollars ought to be under the same standards.”
The governor’s instinct is strong, but the statement took on a life of its own, spurring news coverage, editorials and a distinguished post from the Fordham Institute. Not surprisingly, much of the reaction was one-dimensional, focused on apples and oranges and what Ralph Waldo Emerson might have called a “foolish consistency.” So allow me, as policy director for Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that oversees the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for 50,812 low-income students this year in Florida, to try to paint the broad landscape.
Under Florida’s scholarship program, students are required to take nationally norm-referenced tests approved by the state Department of Education. More than two-thirds take the Stanford Achievement Test. Another fifth, which comprises mainly the Catholic schools, take the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. The test-score gains are then reported publicly each year by an independent researcher, respected Northwestern University professor David Figlio. Starting this year, those gains are also reported for every school with at least 30 students who have current- and prior-year test scores. The validity of these testing instruments is not really in dispute, which is why it is more than a little disconcerting that their results have been scarcely mentioned. The state’s leading newspaper managed to write an entire editorial directive, “Holding voucher schools to account is overdue,” without a single reference.
So, for the record, the state so far has issued five years of test reports for the tax credit scholarship, and two findings have been persistent: 1) The students choosing the scholarship were the lowest performers from the traditional public schools they left behind; and 2) On the whole they are achieving almost precisely the same test gains in reading and math as students of all incomes nationally. For the 70 schools that met the disclosure threshold this year, 50 kept pace with the national sample, eight exceeded and 12 fell short.
Not incidentally, these results provide the kind of data that is needed to judge whether students are making academic progress.
In fact, Dr. Figlio draws this conclusion in his latest report: “A cautious read of the weight of the available evidence suggests that the … scholarship program has boosted student performance in public schools statewide, that the program draws disproportionately low-income, poorly-performing students from the public schools into the private schools, and that the students who moved perform as well or better once they move to the private schools.”
No doubt, that comparison could be further strengthened, politically if not scientifically, if the scholarship students took the exact test as the public school students. And there is reason to believe that the national Common Core standards may produce market pressures on private schools that will prod them to use the same tests as public schools even in the absence of state requirements. Catholic schools, which take pride in their own academic standards, are already taking the lead. As Sherri Ackerman reported on Thursday, all 237 Catholic schools in Florida will be using a version of the Common Core language arts curriculum in 2014.
That said, requiring the schools to do so would be no walk in the park.
Florida private schools historically have enjoyed what the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice has determined to be one of the least restrictive regulatory environments in the nation. They are largely free of any oversight by the Department of Education and face no licensing, accreditation, testing or curriculum requirements. By way of contrast, private schools in North Dakota must be accredited and approved by the state, administer norm-referenced tests, hire certified teachers who teach only in their licensed subjects, follow state guidelines for teacher-pupil ratios, state course requirements for graduation, employ qualified librarians. You get the picture.
This private school history is relevant, and Indiana is a good example of why. Its new voucher law does require that voucher students take the state test. But the ISTEP+ (Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress Plus) is nothing new to private schools there. Roughly half of them with nearly two-thirds of the private-school enrollment were already taking it, as part of the requirement to be accredited by the state and be, among other things, eligible to participate in sports competition with public schools.
This is not the history in Florida. In fact, Florida has prohibited private schools from administering the FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test) and, until a bill passed earlier this year, prohibited private schools with tax credit scholarship students as well. Interestingly, the new law, sponsored by Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, allows scholarship schools to volunteer to administer the test. Two months before the first deadline, 30 to 40 Catholic schools have already signaled their interest.
The second hurdle is that Florida’s scholarship students are spread out, which represents a strength of the program. They represent, on average, only 24 percent of the total enrollment at the 1,314 private schools they attend. Conversely, three of every four students at those schools pay their own private tuition, which means their parents have helped establish the testing expectations and are not likely to be clamoring for a state test that, in its current form and use, is unpopular in both public and private schools.
So these schools, if forced to give the state test, would likely administer two rounds – a nationally norm-referenced test for the majority of students and a state test for the scholarship students. What does that look like for the 58 schools that currently serve only one scholarship student or the 359 schools with fewer than 10? What would that mean, to use one example, for the highly regarded and high-end prep school in St. Petersburg, Admiral Farragut Academy, which serves 21 scholarship students among its enrollment of 400 and accepts the $4,335 scholarship as full payment? Would those students lose out on a remarkable learning environment?
This context here is offered not as an excuse, but a reality check. The current scholarship testing requirement is six years old, allows for direct correlation to the state test through a common statistical practice called “concordance,” and is providing useful academic information about the struggling and low-income students who take part. Maybe scholarship and public school students should take the same test, but it’s certainly worth weighing whether the added value would be accompanied by any unforeseen costs. This is an important and highly appropriate debate. It is best examined in all its dimensions.