Editor’s note: The McKay Scholarship Program for students with disabilities has on occasion been criticized because it does not require that student progress be measured with a standardized test. Robyn Rennick with the Coalition of McKay Scholarship Schools argues that such a policy would be ineffective and counterproductive.
The McKay Scholarship is quite different from tax credit scholarships in Florida or other programs that are working with the general student population. All recipients of McKay Scholarships have diagnosed disabilities and had either an Individual Education Plan or 504 Plan in the public school. Therefore, by definition, they are a unique group of students with all types of disabilities from low cognitive functioning, to autism, to learning disabilities.
The issue of requiring standardized testing was thoroughly investigated and discussed prior to crafting the initial legislation to create the McKay Scholarship. Legislators determined it was an inappropriate measure of accountability. The testing issue was brought up again between 2004 and 2006 when the accountability bill for scholarship programs was being crafted. Legislators again saw the inappropriateness of this type of testing and did not place it the legislation. They recognized that the “one size fits all” approach to testing is wrong for this population of students.
How do you test such a diverse population? What standardized test measures the growth of a severely non-verbal autistic child whose progress may be measured in gaining 40 words in a year and in being able to sit appropriately for five minutes? What standardized test measures the progress of a developmentally disabled child who is learning proper hygiene? Placing these children in a standardized test format would never show the immense progress they may have made that year, compared to where they were. It would also be a cruel exercise to make the children follow.
What of the learning disabled students? Shouldn’t standardized testing be used to show their progress? When the Coalition of McKay Scholarship Schools surveyed its members, we found more than 50 percent of the schools did use a standardized test, especially those serving the learning disabled population. However, what is also typical is these students often enter the private schools three or four years behind their peers on standardized test scores. If a student only “gains” a year on the standardized test, they are still behind. Has the school failed?
We have seen the controversy in our public system as to whether “experts” agree that standardized tests really show whether a school is working. From a research basis, for scores to be compared, the population has to be similar. As we have already noted, the McKay population is extremely diverse. Also, the population has to be large enough to develop an aggregate score. Forty-five percent of schools with McKay students have 10 or fewer students. No researcher would validate aggregate scores from such a small group of subjects. Even in a school with 100 students, the diversity of the groups would not allow for a true picture. So to require standardized testing which is reported to DOE, and then to craft a “research report” from that, would be the most flawed research and a tremendous waste of everyone’s effort, time and money.
This is a parent choice program. Parents are the consumers. They can leave if their children’s needs are not being met.
The McKay school and parent know the child and what tests can or cannot be used to measure progress. Parents have left public schools with their required standardized testing because their child did not fit the “one size fits all” course they were forced into. The McKay Scholarship Program gives parents the choice to determine what type of program and what type of assessments are appropriate for their children. The statute also requires that parents receive a written annual report of their child’s progress. Most schools surveyed by the coalition report to parents more often than that.
The debate about testing McKay Scholarship students is not about children with disabilities, or parents, or private schools. It is not about accountability. It is about politics. Both sides are using testing to carry out their agenda. Some proponents of choice are calling for testing because they want to prove how bad the public schools are by comparison. On the flip side, opponents of choice want to convince people that only through testing can private schools be held accountable for the child’s education. They also know that the more rules and regulations are imposed on private schools, the more private schools will leave the choice programs.
We come back to the premise of school choice. The parents are the taxpayers; the “state dollars” are their dollars. The parents should be the final deciders as to whether a school is appropriate for their child and fits their child’s needs.
Requiring standardized testing will not prove any measure of accountability. But it will drive good schools away from the program. And it will limit disabled children’s access to good programs.
Robyn Rennick is program coordinator of the Dyslexia Research Institute, and charter president and current board member of The Coalition of McKay Scholarship Schools.
Coming up …
Later today: Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up for Students, suggests private schools need to be more affordable for working-class parents.
Tomorrow: Lynn Norman-Teck, communications director for the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools, writes that parents will continue to be the driving force behind charter schools. And Cheri Shannon, president and CEO of the Florida Charter School Alliance, makes it clear that charter school supporters also want poor performing charters to be shut down.