Florida’s voucher system, figures lie and liars figure

In advance of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, where school reformer Michelle Rhee is expected to appear with former Governor Jeb Bush, Northwestern University Professor David Figlio released his annual study on Florida’s voucher schools. The article that the Tampa Bay Times ran on August 23 repeated the conclusion of voucher proponents, but did not consult with education experts, other researchers, or metrics experts on the subject. Given the apples-to-oranges-to-moldy-peaches nature of Dr. Figlio’s comparison, the headline “Voucher students make academic gains similar to other students” is tenuous at best.

As the article correctly stated, private school voucher students are not required to take the FCAT, which is a criterion-referenced test. The FCAT answers the following question about each public school student: How well is this student mastering the standards that a typical student in the same grade would master?

The private school scores used in Figlio’s study, by contrast, comprise results from a completely different test, the Stanford Achievement Test, which is a norm-referenced test. Norm-referenced tests (NRTs) seek to discover how an individual student compares to all of her grade level peers in a percentile ranking. Educators say that FCAT and NRTs were never intended to measure the same things, and were never intended to be compared.

Education experts have raised questions about the validity of developing a concordance between tests that were designed to measure vastly different things. But even if such a concordance were valid, advocates still have reason to be concerned. Is it good science to use a questionable four-year-old concordance tool that was developed on a completely different cohort of students?

As we continue, in Florida, to separate education reform “wheat” from education reform “chaff,” we need to rely less on economists, policy institutes, and political think tanks than on consulting actual educational experts. Education research on the whole shows that privatization is no Superman. We need our journalists to read studies and to consult with outside experts when “conclusions” like this are presented.

Julie Delegal

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