Should School Choice Programs Mandate State Tests?

Published February 22, 2014

Back in December, the Fordham foundation put out a clever parody video of “What Does the Fox Say?” Playing on Fordham’s moniker, The Education Gadfly, the video was entitled, “What Does Gadfly Say?” More recently, Fordham released a paper  calling for private schools in state-sponsored school choice programs to be subject to state accountability tests. We have listened to what the Gadfly has to say. Maybe Fordham should listen to what many private schools and parents have to say. What I’m hearing is: “Don’t test me, bro!”

Survey: Already Testing
I recently surveyed private schools in St. Louis and Kansas City, Missouri regarding their participation in a potential state-sponsored private school choice program. I found many schools—88 percent, to be exact—are already administering some form of standardized tests. Nearly half the schools said they would not participate in a school choice program if they were forced to administer state accountability tests. Aside from upholding admissions criteria and allowing students to opt out of religious services, this was the most important factor for Missouri private schools.

The Fordham Foundation conducted a similar survey among private schools in states with private school choice programs. In total, there were seven items that were similar between the Show-Me Institute’s survey and Fordham’s Survey. A rank ordering of the survey items shows the responses in the two were quite similar. Germane to this conversation is the requirement to participate in state testing. A quarter of schools in the Fordham study said this was “Very Important” or “Extremely Important” to their participation in a school choice program. That figure was higher, 37 percent, among nonparticipants in school choice.

Parents Value ‘More Than Scores’
Is this reason enough to excuse private schools from being required to administer state tests? No, but private school leaders aren’t the only ones saying, “Don’t test me, bro!” This cry is also ringing out from many parents and students. Last September, the AP reported on the growing movement to opt out of standardized tests. Only a fraction of parents are participating in this form of “civil disobedience;” but many others don’t value standardized test scores either. Recent reports by the Friedman Foundation and the Fordham Foundation note parents care about a lot more than test scores.

The Fordham report, What Parents Want, categorized just 23 percent of parents as “test-score hawks.” More parents, 24 percent, fell into the “Jeffersonian” category. These parents are inclined to choose a school that “emphasizes instruction in citizenship, democracy, and leadership.” Still more, 36 percent, were categorized as “Pragmatists,” meaning they valued vocational and job-related training.  “Multiculturalists” were just behind the “test-score hawks,” with 22 percentWhat Parents Want makes the same point found in a recent paper by the Friedman Foundation—parents value “more than scores.”

Who Decides?
The real question behind this debate is: Who should be the arbiter of school quality? In other words, what is the purpose of school choice?

The Fordham Foundation suggests private schools that accept students receiving state support should be held accountable to the taxpayer. This means, Fordham argues, they should be subject to state tests. In essence, Fordham is saying that the state is the arbiter of quality. The state has selected the standards, the state has chosen the state tests, the state will set performance standards, and the state will not allow low-performing schools to participate.

If you believe the ultimate goal of school choice is to improve student achievement, as measured by state accountability tests, then you should agree with Fordham. If, however, the goal of school choice is to afford parents the ability to choose the school that meets their needs, you should probably disagree with Fordham. If parents are the arbiter of school quality, Fordham is wrong.

James Shuls ([email protected]) is the director of education policy at the Show-Me Institute. He earned his doctorate in education policy from the University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform. Reprinted from with permission.

Learn more:
“Available Seats: Survey Analysis of Missouri Private School Participation in Potential State Scholarship Programs,” Show-Me Institute, January 2014:


Image by Shannan Muskopf.