We recently wrote about the latest study by the University of Alabama of academic performance of students who have received scholarships to private schools via the Alabama Accountability Act.

In a nutshell, the report says that there is very little difference in the performance of scholarship students and their public school counterparts.

But since one of the scholarship granting organizations, the Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund, and someone who works for the Jeb Bush-created ExcelinEd group, have both attempted to put their own “spin” on the research, we reached out to Dr. Joan Barth, Senior Research Scientist at the Institute for Social Science Research at the University of Alabama, who was the lead evaluator on the report.

This is the third such report she has worked on and obviously is far more qualified to dissect the numbers than anyone else.

Here is my exchange with her:

How would you summarize what you learned?

“It’s important to note that the majority of students in the AAA program belong to demographic groups (low income, racial minority groups) that have traditionally lagged behind other students in the state and in the country in academic achievement. Keeping that context in mind, here are the three take home messages from the report.

1. With a few exceptions noted in the report, across the seven achievement tests we examined, results generally indicate that the scholarship students as a group did not meet national achievement norms or benchmarks.

2.  In 78 percent of the comparisons made between scholarship recipients and public school students, there was no statistically significant difference between the scholarship recipients and students attending public schools. In cases where statistically significant differences were observed, no reliable patterns across grade levels and subjects could be discerned—so one group did not consistently outperform the other.

3. There is no evidence to suggest that scholarship recipients’ achievement test scores improve over time (but they do not seem to decline either).

Do we have enough data to really come to any hard and fast decisions? 

“We have tried to make the best use of the data available to us. I believe that there is valuable information that can inform the legislature about the progress of the scholarship students as a group. (see 1 and 3 above). These findings are pretty clear. However, to make a more definitive assessment of the relative performance to the scholarship students compared to public school students, it would be better to have both groups of students take the same achievement test.  The comparison group of scholarship recipients with ACT Aspire or ACT scores is only about 14 percent of all scholarship students who were required to be tested, so I do wish we had more data from these students.”  

The news release from the SGO points out that some parents are using these scholarships because they felt their children were being bullied in public schools.  Does any of your data support this claim?

“We were not asked to assess school environment or social factors.”

Editors note: It is interesting that the AOSF news release cites Dr. Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas who is Distinguished Professor of Education Policy and 21st Century Endowed Chair in School Choice in the Department of Education Reform.  It is widely recognized that Wolf receives substantial support from the Walton Foundation, one of the nation’s strongest proponents of vouchers like those being used in the Alabama Accountability Act.

Adam Peshek wrote an op-ed defending the accountability act and taking issue with an editorial in The Anniston Star.  It should be noted that he works for a group founded by Jeb Bush in 2008.  According to their web site, their areas of interest are: charter schools, school choice, education savings accounts, tax credit scholarships and vouchers.  The Walton Foundation gives this group more than $1 million annually.