Official State of Wisconsin Study Confirms Choice Schools’ Success

By Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

Students attending private schools in Milwaukee with publically funded vouchers showed stronger gains in achievement than their public school counterparts, according to the latest release from a University of Arkansas sponsored, and State of Wisconsin authorized, longitudinal study.

University of Arkansas professor Patrick J. Wolf heads their School Choice Demonstration Project and has been conducting the five-year longitudinal study as authorized by a 2005 Act of the Wisconsin legislature. On Monday the Project released their fifth annual report.

The SCDP is a nonpartisan study of education scholarships and other interventions on schools, students, parents, and communities. It is regarded as one of the strongest measurements of student progress within the country’s first modern school choice program.

The fifth year of this study was the first to find a legitimate difference in achievement between two groups of students. Over that span, the voucher students showed statistically significant growth over their peers in reading skills in 8th and 10th grade. These results were echoed across other grades as well, but were not strong enough to be considered a significant effect.

Grades 7, 8, and 10 were the only ones eligible for testing since the longitudinal study began five years earlier and had tracked students from that point. 1,282 students qualified for the comparison, which toiled to create two separate testing groups with similar backgrounds to mine the true effects of school choice in Milwaukee. As a result, the data presented deals with students who started at a similar point but have now grown thanks to their educational experiences.

In simple terms, students in the MPCP outperformed their counterparts by a significant margin when it came to reading. In eighth grade, a voucher student was 17 percent more likely to outgain a regular public school student when it came to reading and literacy.

Growth was also observed in mathematics for these students over the same period. Amongst seventh graders, MPCP students were 11 percent more likely to outscore their MPS peers.

The past four releases of this study had found no significant results related to achievement between the two groups of students in either direction. This year’s report suggests a major difference between students with similar backgrounds in voucher schools and regular public schools.

This change may be related to recent accountability policies that obligated all voucher schools to test students using the WKCE from grades 3-8 and 10. That reform was enacted in 2010-2011. However, it cannot be definitively determined what the motivating factor was behind this noticeable improvement for MPCP children, or whether or not this growth will become a trend.

This growth in achievement wasn’t the only positive benefit for MPCP students. Students attending voucher schools in high school were more likely to graduate and more likely to attend four-year colleges rather than technical colleges when compared with their counterparts. These students were also more likely to remain enrolled through two years or more of college than MPS graduates – though data for college graduation rates is still pending due to the short timeline of the project so far.

However, the results were not all positive for choice schools. The city’s independent charter schools ended a four-year string of educational achievement growth versus regular public school students in the study’s fifth year. These schools had previously generated significant improvements when compared to regular schools, but the two groups had no meaningful change in the 2010-2011 school year. While the students in these charter schools had a performance edge over the regular pupils, the results were not statistically significant and unable to be proven.

When the subjects in this charter school group were limited to those who stayed in charter schools for the full five-year study period, these results shifted. Students that remained in independent charters over this span made significant math and reading gains compared to similar students that stayed in MPS schools.

While these independent charters ended a pattern of growth, former private voucher schools that transformed into public charters had a strong showing. They continued their trend of outperforming regular public schools in math and reading for the fifth straight year.

The fifth year results of the School Choice Demonstration Project are some of the most positive in the study’s history. This year’s data included the breakthrough of significant growth in student achievement, something that had yet to be seen between the two school systems. It meant that students in voucher schools were more likely to show proficiency in reading than similar students in regular public schools. There were also positive trends developing in math skills as well.

Last year, Professor Wolf explained the longitudinal study takes a different approach than measuring the proficiency of students on one test on one day a year.

“Longitudinal studies have a major benefit over snapshot studies, like the DPI report” said Wolf last spring. “We can basically look at achievement gains, for similar students, over time. I think it’s very important to avoid really limited reports and very limited views of what the voucher program is or is not accomplishing.”

Indeed, while these results are modest and there’s work yet to be done, it’s tough to dismiss the statistically significant findings of this longitudinal study. The data not only furthers the proof that voucher schools have no negative effect on students, but also provides evidence that these institutions are producing stronger gains when it comes to key subjects like reading. In the midst of school choice expansion, this is a major win for students and parents in Wisconsin’s largest city.