DNHPE Comment: This report shows the importance of accountability in school choice programs. The Milwaukee, Wisconsin voucher program is 20 years old, much studied and held up as a model. It was established using ALEC model legislation by ALEC proponent Governor Tommy Thompson.
Last year was the first year that schools receiving vouchers were required to participate in state-wide assessment tests and the results show the that voucher schools under-performed the troubled Milwaukee public school system.
This report demonstrates the risks of a school voucher program - the risk of not instituting an assessment program, the risk that the voucher program will not achieve its promise in educational improvement and the risk that access to easy government money will lead to exploitation such as that highlighted under "Low Performing Schools," below.
The two charts at the end tell the whole story.
Choice schools not outperforming MPS
Latest tests show voucher scores about same or worse in math and reading
By Erin Richards and Amy Hetzner of the Journal Sentinel
March 29, 2011 |(302) COMMENTS
Students in Milwaukee's school choice program performed worse than or about the same as students in Milwaukee Public Schools in math and reading on the latest statewide test, according to results released Tuesday that provided the first apples-to-apples achievement comparison between public and individual voucher schools.
The scores released by the state Department of Public Instruction cast a shadow on the overall quality of the 21-year-old Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which was intended to improve results for poor city children in failing public schools by allowing them to attend higher-performing private schools with publicly funded vouchers. The scores also raise concerns about Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to roll back the mandate that voucher schools participate in the current state test.
Voucher-school advocates counter that legislation that required administration of the state test should have been applied only once the new version of the test that's in the works was rolled out. They also say that the latest test scores are an incomplete measure of voucher-school performance because they don't show the progress those schools are making with a difficult population of students over time.
Statewide, results from the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam show that scores didn't vary much from last year. The percentage of students who scored proficient or better was higher in reading, science and social studies but lower in mathematics and language arts from the year before.
Officials with the DPI also pointed out that, overall, proficiency rates have steadily risen over the last six years for every racial group. That has meant a slight narrowing of the achievement gap, although white students in the state still outperform every other racial group, particularly black students.
The big news for those plugged into the education world, however, was the choice vs. public school results in Milwaukee. MPS results overall showed 59% of students scoring proficient or better in reading, while 47.8% of students scored proficient or better in math.
In the voucher program, 55.2% of students scored proficient or better in reading while 34.4% of students scored proficient or better in math.
The percentage of low-income students in MPS proficient or better in reading - 55.3% - was about the same as the voucher program, which currently serves only low-income students.
"These results reinforce the need to continue using the same test for all students," state Superintendent Tony Evers said in a news release.
Howard Fuller, former MPS superintendent and a voucher-school supporter, echoed the need to keep using the state exam.
The latest test was administered in fall 2010 to more than 430,000 public-school students in third through eighth grades and 10th grade, and about 10,600 voucher students in the same tested grades.
"I think it's unfortunate that the governor's budget (proposes going) back to the old system, because I was hoping that this year would be a baseline," Fuller said. "I don't think the WKCE or single tests will tell you everything you need to know about a school. But I do think it's important that we have a common measurement."
Fuller also said that the free-market ideas upon which the voucher program was founded - that academically superior schools will thrive because parents will choose them over lousy schools - has not been borne out over the past two decades, and is not evident in the results of the state test.
The results show some private schools with less than 20% of their voucher students scoring proficient or better in math or reading.
Some of them are institutions that probably would not exist if not for the support of public tax dollars. For example, at Ceria M. Travis Academy - a K-12 school with three campuses and 248 students who took the state test - 19% of the students scored proficient or better in reading, while 81% scored basic or below. In math overall, 6% of students tested proficient.
Dorothy Travis Moore, founder and CEO of the school and a former MPS administrator, said she deals with an at-risk population of students, some of whom haven't been to school in two years by the time they enroll in her school. She figures if she can save even a few of them, the service she provides is a benefit.
Some voucher schools showed impressive results with students. St. Marcus Lutheran School, with 89% of its students on vouchers, saw 86% of them score proficient or advanced in reading and 78% score proficient or advanced in math. Both of those percentages are above the state average.
Mike Ford, spokesman for School Choice Wisconsin, an organization that supports the voucher program, said that the latest test scores are a snapshot that confirms what everyone already knows: Choice school students enter these voucher schools below grade level.
Ford argues that the test scores, however low they may look for many voucher schools, do not show student achievement over time and should not be used to draw conclusions between schools.
"If you're a parent looking in Consumer Reports to find the achievement level at this school, then (looking at) these results makes sense," Ford said. "But if I'm a parent of a lower-achieving student and I want to find a school that's going to move my student up to grade level, then that's a whole different ball game."
From Madison, a spokesman for Walker said it was not likely the governor would reconsider his push to expand the choice program based on the results of the state test scores.
"Empowering parents by providing them with additional options will ultimately improve education for all children by encouraging competition," spokesman Cullen Werwie said in an e-mail. "Under Governor Walker's proposal if parents feel that their children will get a better education at an MPS school than at a choice school, they have the freedom to enroll their children in the public school system."
The WKCE scores show that an achievement gap is still evident in comparing state results to those for Milwaukee schools - both private schools in the choice program and MPS.
In 10th grade, the difference in proficiency levels between the state and MPS was 36 percentage points in reading and 40 in math for the 2010-'11 school year.
MPS officials, however, pointed to gains individual schools have made in reading proficiency, a result they believe is due in part to implementing the comprehensive literacy plan. According to MPS data, 24 schools had double-digit percentage-point increases in the percentage of students scoring proficient or better in reading.
"I think we've raised expectations for children and for staff and done a great job of monitoring the fidelity of the information," MPS Superintendent Greg Thornton said. "What we've been able to do is create an instructional design that has shaped where we need to go."
Thornton praised the efforts of teachers to streamline literacy instruction, and said that if efforts are continued, results could be significantly better in reading by this time next year.
Thornton said he was concerned about the math scores. Those took a slight dip this year, but Thornton said they could worsen next year if the governor's budget proposal - which cuts about $10 million worth of math teacher leader money in MPS - moves forward. That could hamper efforts the district is making to streamline math instruction in the way that it's focused reading instruction, he said.
Results of statewide exams show choice students scored lower overall in math than low-income MPS students.
Percent proficient or better in math
Choice (all low-income)
Source: Department of Public Instruction
Full results online See data for all state school districts at data.dpi.state.wi.us/data/
Look particularly at the state-wide comparisons at the bottom of the chart.