Scores drop when students move to private, magnet schools

Students who leave neighborhood public schools for private or magnet schools tend to fall behind academically in the year after they transfer, according to a new study of school choice in Indianapolis.

Students who move to charter schools don’t fall behind, but neither do they move ahead. Their performance is about the same as if they had stayed in their neighborhood school, the study finds.

The authors of the study, Mark Berends at the University of Notre Dame and R. Joseph Waddington of the University of Kentucky, say the findings don’t discredit the potential benefits of school choice, but they raise questions about the conditions under which choice might be a strategy for improving academic achievement.

“It’s sort of a cautionary tale, that school choice is not a panacea,” said Berends, a professor of sociology and director of Notre Dame’s Center for Research on Educational Opportunity.

The study, “School Choice in Indianapolis:  Effects of Charter, Magnet, Private, and Traditional Public Schools,” has been accepted for publication and posted by the journal Education Finance and Policy.

Berends and Waddington analyzed several years of ISTEP test math and English/language arts scores for Indianapolis students in grades 3-8. The students attended neighborhood and magnet schools in public school districts as well as charter schools and private schools in the city. Magnet schools are public schools organized around themes, such as international engagement, foreign language immersion and Montessori education; students typically apply for admission to the schools.

Berends described the drop-off in test scores for students who exercised school choice as modest but noteworthy. Generally speaking, students who moved to magnet schools, Catholic schools or other private schools fell behind their public-school peers by 0.1 to 0.2 standard deviations in test scores.

By comparison, a 2015 study by the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes at Stanford University touted as significant its finding that students in urban charter students moved ahead by about half that much. The CREDO report was widely cited as evidence that charter schools were superior.

Berends and Waddington found some demographic differences in their results. African-American students who switched to charter schools experienced some gains in achievement. But Latino students who moved to Catholic or magnet schools had larger-than-average losses in learning.

Why would students lose ground when they move to a private or magnet school? One possibility, the authors said, is that students who transfer tend to be low-achieving, and it may take time to catch up with higher-achieving classmates. While the data in the study don’t allow for long-term analysis, students don’t generally fall further behind in the second year after they transfer.

Indianapolis made for an ideal place to conduct the study, the authors said. Promotion of charter schools by the Indianapolis mayor’s office and the Mind Trust, along with Indiana’s school voucher program, means that a lot of school choice has taken place. Private schools, including religious schools, must give the same ISTEP tests as public schools if they participate in the voucher program.

“In a time when a lot of cities are moving to greater school choice options, it’s timely to look at different choices and assess what the impact is on students,” Berends said.

School choice could also get a boost from the federal government. President-elect Donald Trump has proposed spending $20 billion to promote choice, including paying private school tuition.

The Indianapolis study suggests more choice won’t boost achievement and may hurt it. But Waddington notes that families choose schools for a variety of reasons. Some may find a private or magnet school a better fit. Evidence from Indiana’s voucher program suggests parents choose private schools for religious instruction, raising questions about whether the state should support sectarian education.

Berends and Waddington said the Indianapolis study provides more evidence that the key to improving student achievement doesn’t lie with a particular type of school. They said research suggests we should get past the “horse race” question of whether public, charter or private schools are better and seek a better understanding of the characteristics that make some schools more effective than others.

6 thoughts on “Scores drop when students move to private, magnet schools

  1. Tried to read the study, but could only get the abstract and didn’t want to pay for the article. But I’ve seen previous research showing that when students switch schools (maybe any schools??) their performance dips in the first year but then recovers and often times surpasses performance of peers in the years thereafter. I couldn’t quite tell from your writeup how many years they followed these students?

      • This raises another point that can only be seen from my front porch view of school choice here in the middle of Indianapolis. And that is that students in districts like IPS where there school choice is not an option, but a mandate, don’t just switch schools once. They switch schools multiple times. New charter schools are approved by charter authorizers at a rapid pace, with the view that they can always be closed and replaced if things don’t work out as planned. Public schools are closed, turned around, taken over, contracted out, redesigned, or restaffed nearly monthly right now by the IPS Board. Parents are given little if any notice of planned changes, and little help in finding other options when things change. The study makes a helpful start. I would suggest a follow up study by the same authors, that expands the focus to address the effect of multiple changes on student success. That is the reality in IPS.

  2. Pingback: “School Choice Week,” January 22-28, 2017 | Mark's Text Terminal

  3. Pingback: Second study shows Indianapolis charter students fare better on tests

  4. Pingback: Pence’s ‘school choice’ in Indiana | School Matters

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