Lessons from Outcomes in School Choice Research

There are often articles that eulogize or denounce the entire concept of school choice purely on the basis that a subset of charter schools or voucher students have increased, stagnated, or declined test scores. Of course, test scores have a viable purpose in predicting educational success–primarily as an easily obtained comparison standard–but they don’t account for the entire picture. Factors such as graduation rates, earnings, and college attendance are not considered in simple models that use only testing to determine the potential or accomplishment of a given school or set of students.

According to new research by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), these factors have no correlation with test scores, though they are undoubtedly an important measure of success. Is the primary function of education not to equip students with the necessary knowledge and skills to enjoy a successful life? If so, it’s fairly obvious that graduation rates, college attendance, and employment earnings are evidence of achievement that should be considered when debating policy.

This concept is illuminated and reinforced by AEI’s research, titled Do Impacts on Test Scores Even Matter? Lessons from Long-Run Outcomes in School Choice Research. According to AEI, “achievement impact [test score] estimates appear to be almost entirely uncorrelated with attainment impacts [earnings, college attendance, etc.].” This suggests that the influence of test scores as a measure of success on policy is likely overshadowing some of the other factors.

At this point, the reader may consider that the significance of test scores could be used to either discredit or support school choice–there are countless studies that show either side. However, as AEI states in their research, “a growing number of studies are finding that school choice programs can improve high school graduation rates, college attendance, and earnings.” While this is not an uninterrupted trend, perhaps it is one that we should begin paying attention to.

When using measures of success to influence policy, the complexity of a model that factors in both test scores and other factors gives way to a more complete and precise estimate, and should therefore be considered the better influence. It may be easier to use simple test scores only, but– adults love reciting to us kids–hard work and better results go hand in hand.