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Clearing the Air, and the Way, for Voucher Success in Tennessee

BY LINDSAY BOYD

April 3, 2017 1:10PM

The Beacon Center has long been committed to putting all forms of educational choice within reach of Tennessee families. In fact, we have spearheaded efforts since 2011 that include opportunity scholarship proposals (vouchers), education savings accounts, course access, and championed the expansion of our charter school networks. To that end, we whole-heartedly support the Memphis voucher pilot program proposed by Rep. Harry Brooks (R-Knoxville) and Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown). However, the latest amendment by the House education committee has poisoned the water for participating private schools and students, while setting an alarming precedent for the prospects of a more expansive program in the future. Why?

Currently, 90% of our private schools’ curricula are aligned to a separate, “nationally norm-referenced test”—thus allowing them to maintain their unique foundations, standards, and academic principles. The amendment would tell these private schools that the voucher students they accept must take the state mandated test to which their school curricula are not aligned (in contrast to public school curricula) This would force those schools to make one of the following choices:

  • Choose not to participate in this program, limiting the options for participating students.
  • Choose to participate in this program and change their curricula to receive state voucher dollars. This sets a dangerous benchmark for the future of choice, jeopardizing the autonomy and institutional freedoms that private schools have maintained for generations.
  • Participate in this program, but choose not to change their curricula. This puts those voucher students in the unfair and stressful position of having to take and be judged by a test on curricula they aren’t being taught, skewing data on the success or failure of that institution and student.

If the hope of mandating these voucher students to take the Tennessee state assessment is truly to build an ongoing infrastructure of comparable data to track student achievement, proponents should instead consider adopting one of three methods used by the vast majority of the 50-plus educational programs in operation across the country, as researched by University of Arkansas Professor, Dr. Patrick Wolf:

Concordance Procedure – Requires that a sample of participating students take both the stat test and the school’s national norm-referenced test in the same year to compare to their performance on each and generate a statistical crosswalk between the two for all remaining students in the program.

Grade Level Equivalents – Uses the built-in calculation of a student’s grade level equivalency found in all norm-referenced tests to reliably compare with the equivalencies being achieved by students taking the state test.

Z-Scores – Utilizes a process called normalizing, which measures the percentage difference a student’s grade is from the average test result. These calculations can then be compared to other students’ distance above or below the average, which can be done for any test score on any test.

Ignoring these well-established approaches and mandating a state-testing requirement put students in the unjust position of being judged against skewed testing results and undermines private schools’ autonomy and institutional freedom. Furthermore, it dilutes the fundamental benefits of choice and corrupts the foundations from which we hope to extend greater opportunities to more families. For these reasons, Beacon cannot support the state-testing requirement but remains committed to championing an educational choice reform that funds students, not systems.