New Study Confirms Higher Test Scores of Milwaukee Voucher Students

Published October 8, 2012

Another new study indicates students in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program­—the nation’s longest-running voucher plan—made greater test score gains than their Milwaukee Public Schools peers over five years.

The study, directed by the Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB), revealed both seventh and tenth-grade choice students outperformed their peers in reading between 2006 and 2011.

“The latest review of data confirms an earlier finding of positive growth in the MPCP over students in MPS,” said Jim Bender, president of Milwaukee Parents for School Choice. “While they applied different methodology to the same data, the LAB found gains for MPCP students over those in Milwaukee Public Schools, continuing the upward trends.”

‘Strong Validation’ of Success
Since 2006, schools participating in MPCP have been legally required to report the scores of all standardized tests to the School Choice Demonstration Project, a group of education researchers at the University of Arkansas. The law also required the LAB “to review and analyze the test score data.”

“Generally, when follow-up researchers use different methods but confirm the original results of a research project, as happened in this case, that is strong validation of the original research team and its findings,” said Patrick Wolf, an SCDP researcher.

The new, higher gains among Milwaukee choice students may be partly due to “a new high-stakes testing policy,” Wolf said.

“When both MPCP and MPS students were taking the same state-mandated test, but the testing was low-stakes for the private schools but high-stakes for the public schools, the two sectors performed similarly. When both groups took the same test with the same high stakes of public reporting, the students in the Choice program outperformed their matched counterparts in the public schools,” he said.

Diverse Kids, Diverse Schools
The full explanation for why students in MPCP did better is likely due to many reasons, Wolf said.

“A more disciplined school environment that facilitates concentration and therefore learning, a better reading curriculum, more homework, better teachers, a more caring and supportive school environment, more reading instructional time—it really could be any one of these or several of them in combination,” he said.

School choice lets families find the school that best fits their children’s needs, said Christian D’Andrea, an education policy analyst at the Wisconsin-based MacIver Institute.

“Milwaukee’s children are a very dynamic group, and they need a school system that is evolving as quickly as they are. While traditional schools still provide quality educational options for some, they no longer can fit a growing student base under a one-size-fits-all educational umbrella,” D’Andrea said

Beyond test score gains, Wolf cites previous research demonstrating other positive outcomes for Milwaukee choice students, including increased high school graduation rates and college enrollment.

While test scores help measure schools, graduation rates better predict students’ future success, Bender said.

“Combined, these results show the MPCP program has a broad, positive effect on students,” he said.

Image by Chelsea Oakes.