A new report on the academic performance of low-income students receiving Tax Credit Scholarships in Florida finds they are making modestly larger gains in reading and math than their counterparts in public school.
That conclusion from 2009-10 test data is encouraging for those of us who work to provide these learning options, which served 34,550 low-income students statewide last year. But the report, released today and written by respected Northwestern University researcher David Figlio, is also a reminder of the inherent complexities of judging whether these programs work.
Figlio has both a brilliant mind and 13,829 test scores with which to work, and yet his report is filled with qualifiers and provisos and cautionary notes. That’s largely because the scholarship program is so different from the typical public education option. In this case, students are attending more than 1,000 private schools where, on average, four of every five students pay their own tuition. The average scholarship enrollment in each school, for 2009-10, was only 28 students.
That kind of school profile tends to serve as an asset to the economically disadvantaged students, but not necessarily for the standard approach to academic oversight. Since these are mostly private-market schools, the state won’t allow them to administer the state test, known as the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT). But the law does appropriately require every scholarship student to take a nationally norm-referenced approved by the state Department of Education, and most students take the well-regarded Stanford Achievement Test.
These tests do allow Figlio to make direct national comparisons, so we know without qualification that the typical scholarship student scored at the 45th percentile in reading and the 46th percentile in math. We also know that their year-to-year gain from 2008-09 to 2009-10 was the same as students of all income levels nationally, which is a solid piece of academic evidence
Where things get more muddled is in trying to compare to low-income students in Florida public schools. As odd as this may sound, the two groups are substantially different. And they are different in ways that tend to be counterintuitive.