- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 12, 2018

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - A new study found that Alabama children attending private schools on a taxpayer-backed scholarship program are not showing significant improvement on standardized tests scores.

Touted as a way to help low-income students escape schools with chronically low test scores, the Alabama Accountability Act provides scholarships and tax credits for students to transfer to private schools.

A study evaluating test scores found mixed results with the program. Scholarship students frequently outperformed their lower income Alabama public school counterparts, but not the state as a whole. Scholarship students also were not likely to boost their own test scores, the study by the Institute for Social Science Research at the University of Alabama found.

“Overall, the results indicate that over time participating in the scholarship program does not, on average, yield a significant improvement on standardized tests scores,” the study said.

For the majority of scholarship recipients there was no gain or loss in percentile scores on the ACT Aspire, Iowa Test of Basic Skills, and Stanford test, the study concluded.

State law requires an assessment of the program every two years. The study examined academic outcomes for nearly 2,000 scholarship recipients in 2016-17

However, researchers noted limitations in trying to make conclusions. Comparisons were complicated by a lack of uniform testing systems across the state. Researchers also did not have scores from the specific public schools the students would otherwise attend.

The report said the comparisons at each grade level did not present a cohesive pattern.

The study compared the scores of scholarship students to public school students who receive a free or reduced lunch since 90 percent of scholarship recipients included in the study have household incomes that would qualify them for the free or reduced lunch if attending public school.

Scholarship students taking the ACT Aspire outperformed poverty students in public school in almost every grade in reading and math, according to the report. The exceptions were in fifth grade English and 10th grade math where scholarship students lagged both public school students in poverty and the state as a whole.

The director of one of the largest scholarship granting organizations said the results are “encouraging.”

“Over 80 percent of our families are choosing the scholarship because of bullying and school safety issues. Additionally, the vast majority of children are starting the program three year below grade level. While there is always room for improvement, these results should be encouraging to families in the program and for lawmakers looking for ways to improve education,” Lesley Searcy, executive director of the Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund, said.

Dalphine Wilson’s two children use the scholarships to attend private Catholic schools in Montgomery.

“It has made a world of difference. Academically, both children are thriving,” Wilson said.

Wilson volunteered at her children’s previous public schools. She said while she believed teachers were trying their best, they also had to spend a large chunk of their time dealing with struggling or disruptive students.

The scholarship program gives up to $30 million income tax credits for donations to the program, tax money that might have otherwise gone into the state’s education budget. Donors receive a dollar-for-dollar reduction on their state income tax bill. Proponents say it provides parents a school choice, while critics say it diverts millions of dollars from public schools

Montgomery County School Board member Larry Lee, a frequent critic of the program, said the public school system is struggling to make ends meet. He estimated the scholarship program diverted $5.4 million from the school system. “Yet many elementary schools are struggling to just get textbooks,” Lee wrote in an email.

The study offered glimpses of who is using the program. Sixty-two percent of recipients evaluated in the study are African-American students and 20 percent are white.

While the program was originally touted as a lifeline for students at schools designated as failing because they had the lowest test scores, only 34 percent of students evaluated by the study were zoned to attend a school designated as “failing.”

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