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Voucher Study: Transfers to MPS Muddle Results

Test scores are the same after years of study

Aug. 24, 2011
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At the same time Gov. Scott Walker has expanded the voucher program beyond the city of Milwaukee's borders, yet another study of test scores has concluded that students in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) do not perform better than students who attend the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS).

What is new is that the nonpartisan state Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) is concerned about the validity of the results of the privately funded School Choice Demonstration Project based at the University of Arkansas.

The five-year study—bankrolled by various foundations, including the voucher-supporting Bradley and Walton family organizations—paired students in both school systems so that they matched demographically. The researchers then attempted to follow the matched students for five years to see if there was any change in their performance. The final year of the study will conclude in 2012 with the analysis of the 2010-2011 test data. The Arkansas researchers release general data about student achievement without identifying the performance of individual schools.

The LAB's review confirmed what we already knew: that there's a high rate of transfers from voucher schools back to MPS and elsewhere.

The problem is that the rate of transfers out of voucher schools is so high that it threatens the study itself, the LAB claimed, since there aren't enough kids to match up.

Only 41.3% of the 2,727 choice pupils in the researchers' sample remained in the choice schools in the 2009-2010 school year.

In contrast, 71.6% of MPS students in the sample stayed put in MPS during the past four years.

The LAB found that 32.8% of students in the voucher sample transferred to MPS, while only 6.8% of MPS students transferred to a voucher school during the same period.

So even though parents of voucher students had to be involved enough with their children's education to take the extra step of signing up their child to attend a non-MPS school, those same parents and students are far more likely to transfer back to MPS once they've had their “choice” experience.

The LAB wrote that the high rate of transfers makes it difficult for researchers to determine whether a student's performance can be chalked up to what he or she learned at a voucher school, or whether it's due to what the student learned at MPS.

The LAB wrote that its results varied a bit from the original researchers' results because the Arkansas team “used statistical techniques to attempt to compensate for missing test score data.” The Arkansas researchers didn't provide the LAB with more detailed information on how they came up with their test scores.

The Arkansas researchers noted that there was a “negative relationship between student achievement growth and both school switching and student retention. However, the introduction of these variables does not change the substantive conclusion of no difference in achievement growth between MPS and MPCP students.”

Still, the Arkansas researchers are holding out hope that the voucher students will make great gains in student achievement.

“While presently we conclude that in general there is no significant difference between MPS students and MPCP students as measured by three years of achievement, this result may change in future analyses,” their March 2011 report states.


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