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Sometimes Florida Voucher School Gain Scores Are, Uh, Negative…

March 12, 2017

One of the individuals present at Donald Trump’s address of Congress on Tuesday, February 28, 2017, was Denisha Merriweather, a graduate student who years earlier received a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (i.e., voucher) that was delivered by the nonprofit administrator, Step Up for Students. (Merriweather also later worked for Step Up for Students as part of a growing career in advocating for vouchers.)

On March 03, 2017, following her visit with Trump to St. Andrew Catholic School in Orlando, Florida, DeVos issued this statement, which includes the following excerpt regarding Merriweather:

Denisha Merriweather, who was able to attend a private school when her public school did not meet her needs, exemplifies the hope and positive impact of school choice, and her story should serve as a model for the nation.

I featured the above information in a March 06, 2017, post on Merriweather’s circumstances. In short, she acknowledged that instability in her home life had her changing public schools “constantly.” When she changed caregivers, her living situation stabilized so that she was able to stop constantly changing schools. Her new caregiver used a tax credit administered by Step Up for Students to allow Merriweather to attend a Florida private school, Esprit de Corps Learning Center.

A tax credit is a way for corporations and wealthy individuals to give money directly to a voucher-providing nonprofit and in turn receive tax breaks. Such programs cleverly reduce a state’s tax revenue via the promise of post-donation tax credits. Thus, the private-school-funding tax credit is a back-door voucher program, useful in states in which spending public money on private schools is declared unconstitutional, as it was in Florida by the Florida Supreme Court in 2006.

Just as DeVos sells Merriweather’s voucher usage as a private-school-over-public-school success, the nonprofit Step Up for Students also includes a success narrative on its tax forms, which I included and reviewed in this March 10, 2017, post.

Step Up for Students purportedly demonstrates the success of its back-door voucher program via its gain scores (e.g., national percentile rank changes from one school year to the next). From the Step Up 2015 tax form:

Standardized test scores released in August 2014 showed that scholarship students were achieving the same gains in reading and math as students of all income levels nationally. By law, scholarship recipients every year must take a nationally recognized norm-referenced test approved by the state, and most take the well-regarded Stanford Achievement Test. The results reported in 2014 tracked closely with results in prior years, and the researcher issued two key findings– Students who chose the scholarship were among the poorest and lowest-performing students from the public schools they left behind– these same students achieved gains in reading and math that were the same as all students nationally, regardless of income level.

The above summary is very close to that which is included on the 2013 and 2014 tax forms. The summary makes it sound as though all voucher students are breaking even with the national average of all students in Florida.

But there are nuances worthy of note.

According to the 2014-15 Florida Tax Credit Final Report, even though the voucher students can be compared to other students nationally via percentile rankings, no comparison of voucher students to public school students can be made since the two groups of students do not take the same standardized tests.

The report clearly states as much. The tax form summary does not.

As for the public schools from which the tax credit students come, students who entered the tax credit program in 2014-15 overwhelmingly hailed from public schools graded A, B, and C.

Only 8 percent entered the tax credit program from an F-graded school (note some slight rounding error):

A = 23.6%; B = 17.3%; C = 34.1%; D = 17.1%; F = 8.0%%

Thus, even though the tax credit program draws some of the most economically and academically challenged students, it is drawing these students from higher-graded schools– not from the lowest-graded schools.

In Florida, public elementary and middle schools are graded solely using the state test, the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT). For high schools, 62.5 percent of the school letter grade is based on test scores (50 percent FCAT; 12.2 percent SAT).

The 2014-15 voucher report notes that grades 3 through 10 are tested grades in Florida.

The tax credit program is not being utilized by students in public schools with the lowest test scores, as is obvious by the F-rating of the schools.

One wonders why the students at F-rated schools are apparently choosing not to participate in the tax credit program.

Furthermore, even though the report confirms that students utilizing tax credits tend to be “more economically disadvantaged and poorer-performing than free-lunch eligible, non-participating students,” the report also notes that “those who return to public schools tend to be those who were struggling the most in private schools.” Moreover, those returning to public school “appear to be lower performing than other subsidized-meal-eligible public school students who never participated in the FTC program.”

This is an important point: Students who accept a tax credit but who do not do well academically in private school (and who are the lowest performers academically out of the already-lowest performers participating in the voucher program) tend to return to the public schools. 

Step Up does not account for this attrition. Florida’s tax-credit choice does not appear to be able to save the very lowest academically performing students, so they return to the public schools. In this age of painting public schools in broad brush strokes of failure, the fact that this voucher program is not (for whatever reason) the solution for some of the most challenging to educate serves to vindicate the public schools from which these students hail– and to which they return.

Still, it appears that most of the voucher students remain at their chosen private schools. However, reporting average gain scores across all private schools conceals the notable variation among private schools in the program.

Just as public school testing outcomes can vary considerably, so can private school testing outcomes.

A gain score of zero means that the school is at the national average of test takers– which is the success pitch that Step Up included on its tax forms. But Step Up did not offer school-level results, which can vary considerably even when the average of all private school gain scores is virtually the same as the national average of all test takers.

Let us consider the gain scores of Esprit de Corps Center for Learning, the school that Denisha Merriweather attended via tax credit.

In 2014-15 , 44 students completed assessments that produced gain scores. (The researchers cautioned about the stability of gain score results when the number of students tested is below 30. Thus, Esprit de Corps meets the 30+ test-taker condition.)

In 2014-15, Esprit de Corps’ average gain score was -3.66 national percentile ranking points in reading and -13.52 in math.

Its average gain score from 2012-13 to 2014-15 (three years) was -0.65  national percentile ranking points in reading and -2.69 in math.

In an effort to obtain more information on Esprit de Corps’ math gain score history, I consulted a few more FTC reports from previous years.

According to the 2013-14 FTC report, Esprit de Corps fared better in 2013-14: 0.03 in reading (remember, a zero gain is right at the national average) and 6.9 in math (calculations based on 43 student assessments). However, its three-year average gain scores (2011-12 to 2013-14) in both reading and math were -0.65 and -2.69, respectively, which indicates lower gains in previous years, especially in math.

In 2012-13, Esprit de Corps had only a slightly negative math gain score (-1.3), and a slightly positive reading gain (1.3). Still its three-year combined gain score in math (2010-11 to 2012-13) was notably negative (-4.3). Three-year reading was close to zero (0.3). (Score based on 47 student assessments.)

In 2011-12, Esprit de Corps’ math scores were again especially low (-12.4), and its reading gains were also negative (-2.6) based on 47 student assessments. And again, its three-year average gain in math (2009-10 to 2011-12) was particularly low: -3.8. Its reading gain was negative but close to zero: -0.20.

Esprit de Corps has an arguably established history of negative gains in math, as confirmed by its three-year scores from 2009-10-to-2011-12 to 2012-13-to-2014-15.

This school-level reality complicates pitching Florida vouchers via tax credits as an across-the-board, superior public school alternative based on test score outcomes.

Nevertheless, it seems that the push for vouchers in the DeVos era is one conveniently deaf to evidence and infused with the superiority of ideology.

  Betsy DeVos


Want to read more about the history of charter schools and vouchers?

School Choice: The End of Public Education? 

school choice cover  (Click image to enlarge)

Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of two other books: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?.

both books

Don’t care to buy from Amazon? Purchase my books from Powell’s City of Books instead.

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