School Choice Demonstration Project Issues Fifth Year Reports
The School Choice Demonstration Project (SCDP) today issued its fifth year reports in its comprehensive longitudinal study of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP). The SCDP is a national research organization dedicated to objective, nonpartisan evaluations of school choice programs. Its leaders – Patrick Wolf, Jay Greene and John Witte – have led or participated in nearly every major field study of school choice programs across the nation.
The information in italics is excerpted from the SCDP’s Summary of Fifth Year Reports. This summary also includes more specific information from individual reports.
Summary of What We Learned About School Choice in Milwaukee
Our research revealed a pattern of school choice results that range from neutral (no significant differences between Choice and MPS) to positive (clear benefit to Choice). Although we have examined virtually every possible way that school choice could systematically affect people, schools, and neighborhoods in Milwaukee, we have found no evidence of any harmful effects of choice. The major findings from this last set of seven topical reports are that:
- Participation in MPCP continues to grow even as both MPCP and MPS have succeeded in closing or at least denying public funds to a substantial number of low-performing schools over the past five years (Report #33).
- Enrolling in a private high school through MPCP increases the likelihood of a student graduating from high school, enrolling in a four-year college, and persisting in college by 4-7 percentage points (Report #30).
- When similar MPCP and MPS students are matched and tracked over four years, the achievement growth of MPCP students compared to MPS students is higher in reading but similar in math. The MPCP achievement advantage in reading is only conclusive in 2010-11, the year a high-stakes testing policy was added to the MPCP (Report #29).
- When a snapshot of all MPCP students who took the state accountability test is compared to a snapshot of the performance of MPS students with similar income disadvantages, the MPCP students are performing at higher levels in the upper grades in reading and science but at lower levels in math at all grade levels examined and in reading and science in 4th grade (Report #32).
- Based on MPCP and MPS administrative data on MPCP students as well as parent surveys, between 7.5 and 14.6 percent of MPCP students have a disability, a rate at least four times higher than previously reported by DPI (Report #35).
- Visits to 13 MPCP schools revealed that many Choice students come to the schools behind by 1-2 years academically; the MPCP schools use various strategies to try to “catch them up” and prepare them for college and succeed with some but not all of them (Report #34)
- When similar independent public charter and MPS students are matched and tracked over four years, the achievement growth of the charter students compared to MPS students is similar in both reading and math, though conversion charters, which used to be private schools, clearly deliver higher achievement growth than MPS (Report #31).
Findings from previous topical reports in our study, relevant to interpreting these recent findings, show that:
- MPS students themselves are performing at somewhat higher levels as a result of competitive pressure from the school voucher program (Report #11).
- The MPCP saves the state money—nearly $52 million in fiscal year 2011—although not all types of Wisconsin taxpayers benefit from the savings (Report #22)
- The MPCP has had no discernible effect on the racial segregation of schools or housing costs across neighborhoods (Report #20 & #12).
- Students switch schools frequently in Milwaukee, with MPS students typically changing from one MPS school to another MPS school and MPCP students typically changing from an MPCP school to an MPS school (Report #16).
MPCP Students Have Higher Levels of Attainment (Report #30)
Attainment means reaching a certain level of study such as graduating from high school or enrolling in college. It is important because attainment is linked to future success and to outcomes including higher earnings, better health, longer life and lower crime rate.
Students in the MPCP have higher graduation rates than similar students in MPS, according to the SCDP.
The SCDP tracked all eighth and ninth graders enrolled in the MPCP in 2006 and compared them to a similar group of MPCP students. The authors conclude, “On average, there are modest MPCP-MPS attainment differences that appear to favor the MPCP” (17).
MPCP students are also more likely to enroll and remain in a four-year college compared to similar MPS students.
MPCP Students Exhibited Greater Growth in Reading Achievement (Report #29)
The MPCP Longitudinal Growth Study provides a five-year analysis of the effectiveness of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program on growth in student achievement.
For the first time in the study’s history, MPCP students exhibited greater growth in reading achievement compared to a similar group of MPS students. In previous years, the SCDP found that student growth scores for MPCP students were similar to matched MPS students.
The authors point out that in the final year of the study for the first time all students in the MPCP were required to take the WKCE. Therefore, they cannot be certain that the achievement gains in reading were the result of participating in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program or the result of the new testing requirement.
“The test-based accountability policy was applied to our MPCP runners during the final leg of the race, like a surge of adrenaline, and they clearly crossed the finish line ahead of their MPS peers” (24).
Annual Snapshot WKCE Test Score Data and its Shortcomings (Report #32)
The SCDP also examined single year (2010-11) snapshot test scores of MPCP and MPS Free and Reduced Lunch (FRL) pupils.
Overall, fourth grade students in the MPCP that took the WKCE scored 4-13 points below MPS FRL students, but eighth grade students in the MPCP scored better than MPS FRL students in reading and math
The authors note that its results are different from the WKCE results the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) publicly released last year. One reason for this is that DPI counted students that did not take the test as non-proficient and included their scores. When the authors took out both MPS and MPCP students that did not take the WKCE, MPCP proficiency rates slightly improved.
The authors also emphasize, “these data show us how a large group of MPCP students is performing academically, but tell us nothing with certainty about what has caused them to perform at that level…it would be a mistake for readers to draw conclusions concerning the effectiveness of the MPCP based on these or any other annual descriptive statistics” (4).
The authors observe that the DPI data, and a recent report from the Public Policy Forum, do not allow comparisons to be made between MPS and the MPCP nor do they allow individual schools to be evaluated.
Special Needs (Report #35)
The SCDP found “that most private schools lack the incentives, personnel, protocols, and organizational culture that lead public school systems to label students with disabilities as requiring special education services…However, that does not mean that private schools do not enroll students who would be formally designated as students as students with special needs if they were in the public schools” (ii).
In fact the authors suggest that an MPS student is three times more likely to be labeled as special needs than if that same student were in a private MPCP school.
In total, using parent surveys and administrator data, the authors found that between 7.5 and 14.6 percent of students has a disability in private schools in the MPCP. This is considerably higher than the 1.6 percent rate DPI publically reported last year, which the SCDP says, “clearly is negatively biased, by a lot” (17).
Charter School Findings (Report #31)
The SCDP also analyzed the effect independent charter schools had on student achievement gains during a four-year period beginning in 2006. The SCDP found that achievement gains for students that attended independent charter schools were smaller than previous years.
“On the other hand, students in conversion charter schools, which were once private schools, consistently out performed similar MPS students in matched sample in every year” (iii).
MPCP School Visits (Report #34)
In the fifth year of the study the SCDP visited six MPCP high schools and seven MPCP K-8 schools to find out what some of the common practices and major challenges are. The SCDP researchers were not permitted to visit MPS schools.
Some of the common themes that were evident during these visits included an emphasis on college attendance, the importance of effective school leadership, the importance of professional development practices in recruiting and retaining teachers, and parental involvement.
Some of the major challenges schools face include students that arrive several grade levels behind, Recruiting and retain effective school leaders and teachers, and offering support to students that will be the first in their family to attend college.
School Characteristics (Report #33)
- In 2010-2009, 107 private schools served 20,996 students. Of these, 88 % of schools served elementary school students, 79.4% served middle school students, and 25.2 % of schools served high school students.
- Most of the schools (85.7%) have a religious affiliation. Of those 38% are Catholic, 29% are Lutheran, and 19% are non-denominational Christian.
- Schools in the MPCP offer programs and services similar to those offered by MPS including: art programs (74%), music programs (76%), afterschool programs (65%), and programs for students with learning problems (72%).
- The average student-teacher ratio is small for MPCP schools (15.8) compared to MPS (16.3).