The Legislative Audit Bureau’s (LAB) review of the final year of the state-authorized five year longitudinal study of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) is once again bringing the never-ending debate on the efficacy of school choice into the public discourse.
At issue is the LAB’s conclusion that statistically significant test score gains for MPCP pupils in the final year of the study may be in part attributed to the introduction of universal Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam (WKCE) testing for all MPCP pupils. There is research showing mandatory testing can create a bump in test scores. Hence, LAB states the SCDP finding on reading gains is not conclusive.
The LAB analysis is news only if you did not read the School Choice Demonstration Project (SCDP) studies when they were released earlier this year. The SCDP states clearly: “There is some evidence that the larger achievement growth of the MPCP students that we observe is attributable to the introduction of the accountability policy.” In other words, after five years we know MPCP and MPS students experience similar gains in math scores, and statistically significant gains in reading scores that may or may not be caused by the change in testing policy.
Some perspective. Even statistically significant gains are not necessarily all that substantively significant. A slightly higher reading score is not going to make or break the future of a child. It is important to understand what the SCDP study actually set out to accomplish. It was a program evaluation designed to determine how the MPCP impacted Milwaukee students. Accordingly, over the course of the study the public learned an almost overwhelming amount about a program that was once criticized for being understudied. The public now knows:
- High school graduation rates are slightly to moderately higher for MPCP students compared to MPS students.
- MPCP high school graduates have higher rates of four-year college enrollment than MPS graduates.
- MPS serves a higher percentage of special needs pupils (19%) than the MPCP (between 7.5% to 14.6)
- Closed schools in the both the MPCP and MPS are on average lower performing than schools that remain open.
- There is a large amount of student switching between MPCP and MPS schools. The level of switchers from the MPCP is higher in part because of students switching at terminal grades, i.e. a MPCP 8th grade graduate moves onto a MPS or charter high school.
- The MPCP saves state taxpayers money, though the savings are distributed unevenly between Milwaukee and the rest of the state.
- MPS experiences modest achievement gains attributable to competition from MPCP schools.
- Finally, overall test scores gains are slightly higher in reading for MPCP pupils, and similar for MPCP and MPS pupils in math.
Given these findings policy makers and the public ought to be able to make an informed decision about whether the MPCP adds value to Milwaukee and Wisconsin. No, its mere presence does not create massive test score gains for all pupils, and yes, there is sometimes large variation in performance by school.
Additional steps to understand the impact individual schools are having on academic outcomes are important for creating policies that maximize the likelihood of school success. However the results of the SCDP’s program evaluation give plenty of reasons to conclude that Milwaukee is much better off with the MPCP than without it.