As Florida senators get their first look today at a new private school scholarship for economically disadvantaged students, some familiar taunts about academic results for the existing Tax Credit Scholarship have resurfaced. Be wary of rhetorical flourish.

Yes, the low-income scholarship students are not required to take the Florida Standard Assessment administered in traditional public schools. But they are required to take state-approved nationally norm-referenced tests whose academic validity is not in dispute.

So those who claim “Floridians have no idea if private schools are succeeding,” as one South Florida newspaper wrote recently, are ignoring 10 years of testing data to the contrary. They also neglect extraordinary new independent research that shows scholarship students are more likely to attend and graduate from college.

The testing trend line

Students in grades 3-10 on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarships have been required since 2006 to take a standardized test, and most take the Stanford Achievement. In the most recent report, their average percentile ranking in reading was 48 and in math was 46. That’s basically average, which is made more encouraging by the fact that these students are among the poorest in the state (and were the lowest performing from public schools they left).

The more important measure is whether the students are learning, and the bottom line has been almost identical each year: These low-income students have achieved the same annual gains as students of all income levels nationally.

Test score gains for individual schools with at least 30 tested scholarship students are also reported annually. In the most recent report, 342 schools were listed.

Comparisons with public school students

When budget cuts removed norm-referenced portions of the state test in 2011, researchers were no longer able to make a direct comparison between scholarship and public school students. In that 2011 academic findings report, though, researcher David Figlio concluded that scholarship students outperformed their peers in public schools, even though the public school students had higher incomes.

Figlio wrote of what he viewed as increasing gains: “These differences, while not large in magnitude, are larger and more statistically significant than in the past year’s results, suggesting that successive cohorts of participating students may be gaining ground over time.”

Students who enter and leave the scholarship

From the earliest years, state researchers have found that scholarship students who come from public schools were among the lowest academic performers in schools that themselves had disproportionately low test scores. That’s no slight on the public school. It’s intuitive. If a student is doing well in his or her current school, why change?

Similarly, scholarship students who return to public school are among the lowest performers in the private school they leave behind.

This recurring fact has been stretched in the current debate to imply that scholarship students who return to public schools have learned essentially nothing. That’s not what test results show, and, further, Figlio addressed that question head-on in his 2013 report. He looked at students who had switched twice – from public to private and back to public. In those cases, the state public test scores remained essentially the same.

Wrote Figlio: “FTC participants who return to the public sector performed, after their first year back in the public schools, in the same ballpark but perhaps slightly better on the FCAT than they had before they left the Florida public schools. The most careful reading of this evidence indicates that participation in the FTC program appears to have neither advantaged nor disadvantaged the program participants who ultimately return to the public sector.”

Beyond test scores

In February, the respected Urban Institute released perhaps the most significant research in the scholarship program’s history. The report was a followup to work released in 2017 and was directed again by the Institute’s Director of Education Policy, Matthew Chingos, who has a PhD in government from Harvard University. His team matched data between roughly 89,000 scholarship and public school students from 2003 to 2011, representing the largest study of its kind in the nation.

The institute found that scholarship students are more likely than their public school peers to attend and graduate from college. The difference is striking.

Scholarship students as a whole were up to 43 percent more likely to attend college, a difference that rose to 99 percent for those on the scholarship at least four years. Similarly, scholarship students as a whole were up to 20 percent more likely to get a degree, a difference that rose to 45 percent for those on the scholarship for at least four years.

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