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State lawmakers are currently pushing for a massive expansion of a program that provides public money to pay private school tuition. Critics say the move is devastating to public education. Furthermore, a report on discrepancies in program data led to a recent acknowledgment that at least one school collected state money for students who weren’t enrolled.

NC voucher expansion shakes up testing for all students

Students listen during a phonics lesson at Trinity Episcopal School, one of the schools that takes Opportunity Scholarships.
Ann Doss Helms
Students listen during a phonics lesson at Trinity Episcopal School, one of the schools that takes Opportunity Scholarships.

This article originally appeared in WFAE reporter Ann Doss Helms' weekly education newsletter. To get the latest school news in your inbox first, sign up for our email newsletters here.

When North Carolina lawmakers voted for a dramatic expansion of private school vouchers, they added a small step toward accountability for the schools that get public money. But so far that demand is mostly creating concern and confusion.

Public schools (including charters) must give state reading, math and science exams, with scores disclosed to the public and used for school performance grades. Private schools that get Opportunity Scholarship money must administer a national exam of their choosing, report the results to the state and notify scholarship recipients’ parents of their child’s scores. But there’s no public disclosure and no clear way to compare performance with public schools.

Next year, though, the General Assembly charged the state superintendent with choosing a “common nationally standardized test” for scholarship recipients in third and eighth grades — a test that will also be given to public school students in those grades. Schools receiving scholarship money will also be required to administer the ACT college readiness exam in 11th grade, as public schools do. For the remaining grades, the school can continue to choose its own national test. (You can read the current and future requirements here.)

The recommendation for a common test was due March 1, but Superintendent Catherine Truitt has asked lawmakers for an extension to Jan. 1. She cites “significant challenges” with identifying exams that would measure progress against that state’s standard course of study and work with the EVAAS “value added” system used to rate public schools and award teacher bonuses. She says the idea that she should select one test — which would be provided by only one vendor — would collide with legal requirements for state agencies to take bids. She also notes that the ACT costs $33.50 per student and has limited value in judging academic achievement (Charlotte-Mecklenburg School officials have raised similar concerns).

So right now, all private schools know is that if they accept Opportunity Scholarships they’ll probably have to do something different with testing next year. And if there’s not enough confusion, Truitt’s defeat in the Republican primary means there will be a transition in the superintendent’s office while all this is going on.

It’s also unclear to me what this would mean for public schools. Would third- and eighth-graders take the new test instead of state exams, or in addition? Truitt’s reference to EVAAS makes me think new scores would factor into performance grades and/or teacher effectiveness ratings. How would that work?

Stephanie Keaney, executive director of the North Carolina Association of Independent Schools, calls it a state of limbo.

“Will (the common test) be named by the end of this year? Or are they going to put together a think tank? Or are they going to punt this until after November? I would love to know. My schools want to know,” she said.

Kindergarteners in a Spanish class at Trinity Episcopal.
Ann Doss Helms
Kindergarteners in a Spanish class at Trinity Episcopal.

Lots at stake for schools, parents and taxpayers

There’s a lot at stake in getting this expansion right. As I reported last week, some schools see it as a great opportunity to increase diversity and/or enrollment, while others are still hanging back. Taxpayers are budgeted to put almost $192 million into the vouchers in the coming year, and some advocates are lobbying for more to meet surging demand. By 2031 the plan is to spend more than $500 million a year on private-school tuition.

Participation can bring big money for schools. So far this school year, 30 private schools have received more than $1 million each in Opportunity Scholarships. The program has brought more than $13 million into Mecklenburg County this year, to cover more than 2,100 students.

Keaney’s association includes schools that take the vouchers and those that don’t, as well as religious and secular schools. What they have in common is that all of them are accredited, which means they’re already submitting their curriculum to outside review and giving nationally standardized exams. Keaney says the ERB and the Iowa Test of Basic Skills are commonly used by private schools.

She says her group understands that some schools getting private money are doing less, and that increased spending demands increased accountability. But she says schools that already have high demand and their own financial aid system may be reluctant to commit to a complex and uncertain testing system.

Truitt raised a similar concern in her letter to legislators, saying she’d like to figure out whether there’s a way to make legitimate comparisons using data from tests the private schools are already using. “If so, this would prevent the state from having to dictate only one end-of-year exam and provide local control and flexibility to the private school,” she wrote.

What happens to new testing data?

Once a new testing system launches, the next question is what happens to the data.

In an ideal world of accountability, current and prospective Opportunity Scholarship families could get a read on performance at individual private schools, just like they can with public ones. And experts from the state and independent organizations could compare the performance of voucher and public school students.

In reality, all that would be tough to pull off, even if there’s the political will. Some private schools are so small that data for, say, third-grade Opportunity Scholarship students might hinge on one or two children. And a lot of thought would have to go into what constitutes meaningful comparisons. There’s a lot of variety in the academic quality of voucher schools, just like there is among public schools.

Blair Rhodes, communications director for the Department of Public Instruction, says the General Assembly has yet to spell out what state officials will do with new testing data. “It’s a TBD in that the legislature will have to address it at a future time,” she said.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.