Changing Lives Across Multiple Measures: School Choice Delivers By Metrics of Parents and Regulators
School choice programs – vouchers, tax credit scholarships and education savings accounts – have been under attack in the media, supposedly for failing to deliver promised test score gains. Anti-school choice advocates like Diane Ravitch claim there is “no evidence” that students participating in scholarship programs perform better on standardized tests than their public-school peers. However, a new meta-analysis of studies done on the academic achievement of students in school choice programs shows that empowering parents to choose delivers across multiple assessment metrics.
The study, by University of Arkansas researcher Patrick Wolf and two colleagues, consolidates the results from 19 evaluations of 11 school choice programs, mostly in the United States but also including programs in Columbia and India. The results – contra Ravitch and other critics – show substantial gains for school choice students in both reading and math test scores. Key for policymakers, however, is that although slight initial improvements in reading take place immediately, large gains in test scores vis-à-vis public school peers do not really take off until after the third year, suggesting that kids need time to adjust to their new environments before fully taking advantage of them.
Test scores are important, as they allow standardized comparisons across different learning environments in a way that makes it easy to hold educators accountable. However, lost in the focus on test scores is that parents overwhelmingly rely on more individualized indicators of student success or failure that would be impossible for bureaucrats dealing with thousands of students to track. In a focus group survey of parents who were asked how they evaluate their children’s academic progress, parents overwhelmingly cited student motivation and grades as their indicators of success. Not a single parent mentioned chose standardized test scores, suggesting a huge disconnect between the evaluation priorities of legislatures and parents.
And there is evidence the factors parents chose to emphasize may indeed be more indicative of success throughout life than test scores. One such “soft” predictor of success is contact with the criminal justice system; avoiding interaction with that system increases lifetime earnings by 30 percent, along with other positive results. Another study conducted in 2016 found the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program decreased incidence of arrests and convictions among choice students when compared to a “matched” public school student. A voucher student in Milwaukee is 42 percent less likely to be convicted of a crime and a stunning 79 percent less likely to be convicted of a felony.
School choice programs do raise standardized test scores, but they do much more than that. The evidence shows that educational choice is changing lives, not just numbers on a spreadsheet.