When taxpayer dollars are on the line, the state should do its best to ensure those schools are teaching students, said Fordham’s Petrilli.
“If we have data—especially some kind of growth data—and it shows that kids are not learning anything in that school year after year, I think that is clearly a waste of taxpayer funds,” Petrilli said. “There’s an appropriate government role in … saying, ‘Hey, there’s going to be a handful of schools that are so low-performing that we’re not going to allow them to be a part of the program.’”
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Making sure vouchers don’t allow students to end up where they learn less: That’s the reason for Indiana’s strict accountability rules. But Central Christian’s experience illustrates the challenge that can pose for schools, too.
Vouchers themselves were a boon for the school, which had been shrinking as congregants from the affiliated church migrated to the suburbs. The state funding attracted low-income families from the neighborhood, and enrollment at the tiny school swelled. At its peak, more than 60 percent of students received state aid.
Many of those students were less prepared than past students had been—and less likely to post high test scores, Sexauer said. “We weren’t used to that.”
Meanwhile, Indiana has spent years grappling with changing standards, tests, and accountability systems. That means the academic success of private schools, like public schools, is being judged by a set of particularly controversial and imperfect measures.
Indiana’s policies actually give private schools an even shorter and stricter timeline to improve than public schools face. If a private school gets a D or F grade from the state for two consecutive years, it is no longer eligible to receive vouchers for new students.
That’s what brought Central Christian to the brink of closing. But the school is on track to get new vouchers again. Its score jumped when the state changed how it measures schools to give them more credit for “student growth.” Now, even if children are not passing the state test, schools can earn high marks if their students see their scores rise over time. Central Christian officials say the change helped a lot.
Even before the grading shift, the school made changes that advocates of strong accountability could tout as a success—and a few that advocates for an unfettered school-choice marketplace see as worrying.
The prospect of losing state funding meant that Central Christian leaders went all in on a plan to improve teaching and test scores and to do a better job with students who came in behind. They brought in an outside consultant who helped revamp their instruction, building in more regular teacher training and adding more tests to see what students were learning throughout the year.
And they started following the state’s blueprint for what students should learn, and when. Before Central Christian started taking vouchers, Sims said she was a bit “oblivious” to state standards or tests. But now school leaders use Indiana’s standards to make sure that students on are track to know material by testing time.
For some choice advocates, that illustrates what’s wrong with Indiana’s strict accountability system. One reason why McTighe criticizes mandated state testing for private schools is because it pressures private schools to follow state standards, teaching the same material in the same order as public schools.
“If every school is the same, there is no choice,” McTighe said. “We have replaced genuine school choice with kind of an appearance of school choice.”
This post appears courtesy of Chalkbeat.