Comparing NC voucher students to public school pupils


Hundreds of students attending private schools using taxpayer money, along with their counterparts in public schools, volunteered to take an extra test this spring as part of a project that aims to show how the groups compare academically.

Researchers at N.C. State University are running the project that will have students in public and private schools take a short-form version of a well-known standardized exam called the Iowa Test.

The state voucher program is in its third year, but there hasn’t been a way to know whether students who use the money for private school are doing better, worse or the same compared to public school students.

Students attending private schools do not take the same state standardized tests required in public schools. Private schools that take vouchers must give students a standardized test each year whose results can be compared to test-takers nationally, but the schools can choose which test they give. Results are not publicly reported unless the school has more than 25 students who use vouchers, called Opportunity Scholarships.

“We don’t have a common measure to compare against the public school students,” said Trip Stallings, director of policy research at the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation.

Stallings is part of the research team doing the study.

The state in 2014 began paying private-school tuition of up to $4,200 a year for students who leave public schools and whose families meet income guidelines.

The law setting up the program required that the office that runs it, the State Education Assistance Authority, hire an independent research organization to examine learning gains and losses among scholarship students and effects on public school performance. The N.C. State researchers are doing the study on behalf of the assistance authority.

Vouchers are controversial, and evidence about whether they improve student achievement is mixed. A Stanford University professor who analyzed 25 years of research concluded earlier this year that test-score gains were insignificant. The group EdChoice says there are 25 voucher programs operating in the United States.

Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, a private group that pushed for vouchers, supported the project and helped introduce researchers to private school leaders.

“We believe that there’s got to be some sort of testing and assessment component,” said Brian Jodice, vice president of communication and outreach at Parents for Educational Freedom. “Folks are saying, ‘We want to see results.’ We agree with that.”

Jodice said he hopes this first year can be used as a foundation for future studies of scholarship students’ achievement. It would be helpful to look at student growth, he said, because it takes two or three years to show results.

Two hundred and fifty Opportunity Scholarship students volunteered to take the Iowa Test. Even more public school students will take it. Unlike most research studies that rely on random samples, the participants are volunteers. Researchers will use a statistical procedure called “matching” so private school students are compared to public school students with similar backgrounds.

For example, an Opportunity Scholarship student who historically scored well on math tests before being going to private school would be matched with a student with similar high scores on earlier math tests, Stallings said.

The research team has also surveyed private-school leaders and conducted focus groups with parents.

“Test analysis is only one piece of the puzzle,” Stallings said. “We hope to be able to have the funding” to track long-term impacts, he said.

Stallings said he hopes this year’s results can be used to make adjustments to the program.

Lynn Bonner: 919-829-4821, @Lynn_Bonner