Students can get scholarships, or vouchers, for Catholic schools in Florida. Credit: Creative Commons
Thousands of public school students in Florida will take state exams this spring in reading, writing, math, science and social studies, and the state will publish the results — regardless of whether scores are glowing or embarrassing.
That won’t happen at private schools.
Students who get “scholarships” or vouchers to attend private schools with public dollars can skip that litany of exams. And even when they take an exam that’s required by the state, the public knows very little about the results, state records show.
The testing differences for public and private kids are likely to intensify as Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature push to expand voucher programs across Florida, allowing thousands more students a year to attend private schools with public dollars.
With potentially more and more public money flowing into private schools, some educators and taxpayers question why students who receive vouchers don’t have to take the same exams as their public school peers.
The issue pits public schools against private ones that want autonomy even as they accept voucher students and the state funding that comes with them.
Sharon Nesvig, the director of communications at the Florida Education Association, says it comes down to a question of fairness and transparency.
“When public dollars are funneled to private schools, there absolutely should be an even playing field between those schools and the public system in regard to testing and test scores, with full transparency in the reporting of results,” says Nesvig. “Taxpayers deserve to know what kind of education their money is buying, and whether a school is preparing kids to lead productive, rewarding lives.”
Widespread testing of schoolchildren has been part of the public education landscape for years, sparking debate from families, educators, and advocacy groups.
Testing and test results allow teachers and parents to assess how kids are progressing and what students should know to be able to graduate. They also let families see how many kids pass state exams at their schools and others. In addition, parents who want options for their children’s education can use school and district-wide test results as at least one measure to pick a school.
The Florida Department of Education posts the swath of information about public school testing online, making it available to anybody. But private schools typically don’t make that kind of data available to the public.
By law, private schools that enroll so-called voucher students usually administer a national achievement test, such as the Stanford Achievement Test, for kids in grades 3 through 10.
A private school also can choose to administer the full set of Florida statewide assessments to all of its students, just like the public schools do, but that’s not typical.
The Florida Phoenix reviewed more than a decade of state-required evaluations on how voucher students have fared on tests in private schools, but couldn’t find even basic average test scores for individual private schools. That means parents can’t compare average scores at individual private schools.
The evaluations did show statewide average scores that were below average in math and reading. The scores were from a variety of exams used to test voucher kids in private schools.
The most recent evaluation, for 2016-17, showed that voucher students in private schools statewide scored at the 41st national percentile in math (50 would be average). That 41st percentile is the lowest in a decade, the records show. The reading score for voucher students was at the 45th percentile.
Those test results relate to students in Grades 3 to 10 who got vouchers from the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program to attend private schools.
The evaluations did not compare private school scores to public school test results because different exams were given.
Private schools have not provided test results to the Florida Department of Education for public access. Under the law, students’ test results must be sent to parents and to an independent research organization that evaluates test results and gains in test scores.
In the last few years, Florida State University’s Learning Systems Institute has done those evaluations, and they are posted online on the Florida Department of Education website.
The Florida Phoenix asked FSU about getting more specific private school test results, such as average national percentile scores for individual private schools. A spokeswoman responded:
“The Learning Systems Institute conducts the annual evaluation of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program as required by the legislature. The data/information that we can release publicly is in the reports, which are available on the DOE website.”
Private school perspectives
Robert Futrell, a longtime principal at Trinity Christian Academy in Jacksonville, says he’s not surprised that statewide test scores for private school voucher students are below average.
He acknowledges that at his school, overall test scores have dropped, in part because of the increase of struggling low-income students who have enrolled using publicly funded vouchers.
“These families are looking for the opportunity to get out” of the schools they had attended, Futrell said.
He said he’s not critical of public schools.
Howard Burke, executive director of the Florida Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, said Christian schools do take national achievement tests such as the Stanford Achievement Test.
Burke is opposed to the state exams taken by public students because, he says, those tests are “poor” and based on controversial Common Core academic standards that Gov. DeSantis is pushing to eliminate.
States vary considerably on whether voucher students should be required to take certain tests, says Jason Bedrick, policy director of EdChoice, a nonprofit that does research and tracks initiatives such as tax-credit and voucher programs.
He said that among the 23 states that have tax-credit scholarship programs, 12 don’t have any testing requirements.
Of those 11 that do have testing requirements, only two — Illinois and Louisiana — require use of state exams, Bedrick said. The nine others require a national achievement test.
Bedrick also said that among the 27 voucher programs in the U.S., including Puerto Rico, 10 require a state test, nine don’t require any testing, four require a national achievement test, and some are not easily categorized.
But overall, private schools and families want autonomy, Bedrick said. “We don’t want to put every child in a small box — we want a diversity of options.”
In a recent survey of Florida families who have gotten tax-credit scholarships, parents were asked about what parents want from schools. Test scores were near the bottom, Bedrick said.
“They were not looking for test scores. They did care about academic quality overall,” Bedrick said. That included small classes, a safe environment and instruction in morals, character and values.
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