Academic journal article Education Next

The Looming Shadow: Can the Threat of Vouchers Persuade a Public School to Turn Itself around? (Research)

Academic journal article Education Next

The Looming Shadow: Can the Threat of Vouchers Persuade a Public School to Turn Itself around? (Research)

Article excerpt

The case of Florida suggests yes

THE FLORIDA A-PLUS PROGRAM IS A SCHOOL ACCOUNT-ability system with teeth. Each public school is assigned a grade based on the performance of its students on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) in reading, math, and writing. Reading and writing FCATs are administered in the 4th, 8th, and 10th grades; students take the math FCAT in the 5th, 8th, and 10th grades. The scale-score results from these tests are divided into five categories. The letter grade that each school receives is determined by the percentage of its students scoring above the thresholds established by these five categories or levels. If a school receives two F grades in a four-year period, its students are offered vouchers that they can use to attend a private school. They are also offered the opportunity to attend a better-performing public school.

The FCAT was first administered in the spring of 1998. So far, only two schools in the state, both located in Escambia County, have received two failing grades, the second coming during the 1999 round of testing in both cases. Students in both schools were offered vouchers, and nearly 50 students and their families chose to attend one of a handful of nearby private schools, most of which were religiously affiliated. No additional schools were subject to the voucher provision after the 2000 administration of the FCAT because none failed for a second time.

The theory undergirding this system is that schools in danger of failing will improve their academic performance to avoid the political embarrassment and potential loss in revenues from having their students depart with tuition vouchers. Whether the theory accords with the evidence is the issue addressed here. Perhaps the threat of vouchers being offered to students will provide the impetus for reform, But it is also plausible that schools will develop strategies for improving the grade they receive from the state without actually improving the academic performance of students. Perhaps schools will not have the resources or flexibility to adopt necessary reforms even if they have the incentives to do so. Perhaps the incentives of the accountability system interact with the incentives of school politics to produce unintended outcomes.

The evidence suggests that the theory holds true: that-the A-Plus program has been successful at motivating failing schools to improve their academic performance. The gains, moreover, seem to reflect real improvement rather than a mere manipulation of the state's testing and grading system.

The Literature

The question of whether testing and accountability systems are an effective reform tool has seldom been the subject of rigorous research. Most research attention has been devoted to evaluations of the accountability system in Texas. The Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) has been in existence for a decade and is the most comprehensive of all state testing systems. Students in Texas are tested in 3rd through 8th grades in math and reading. In addition, students must pass an exit exam first offered in 10th grade in order to graduate. The state is also phasing in requirements that students pass exams in order to be promoted to the next grade.

The comprehensive nature of Texas's accountability system and the fact that its governor was a candidate for the presidency attracted considerable attention to the TAAS. The most systematic research on TAAS appeared in two somewhat contradictory reports issued by the RAND Corporation (for a critique of both reports, see Eric Hanushek's "Deconstructing RAND" in the Spring 2001 issue, available on-line at In the first report, released in July of 2000, David Grissmer and his colleagues analyzed scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a test administered by the U.S. Department of Education, in order to identify state policies that may contribute to higher academic performance. …

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