Who Would Game the System to Deprive Needy Students of More Choices?

You may not be surprised to hear that this little tyke enjoys games as much as the next kid. Want to challenge me to a contest of Checkers — or better yet, use those same Checkers in a game of Connect Four? Maybe you just want to get me outside during the summer so I can play Hide-and-Seek or Kick the Can. Perhaps you can appreciate my parents trying to keep me occupied at a busy restaurant with something old-fashioned like Tic Tac Toe, or better yet, a chance at Angry Birds on my dad’s phone.

Games are great and can be lots of fun. But gaming the system to hurt students? That’s just wrong.

A quick stop today over at Jay Greene’s always-enlightening blog (I have to say that ever since he told everyone I have “one of the best education blogs, period”) led me to two separate stories with an intertwining theme: How students with disabilities are counted can limit access to educational options OR can malign programs and schools that provide those opportunities. Very telling stuff.

First, a new study published by The Association for Education Finance and Policy shows how some Florida schools facing the threat of vouchers due to poor test scores would “strategically classify their weaker students” in such a way where they wouldn’t have to take the tests.

As guest-blogger Greg Forster points out about this “self-interested” approach, the schools were shown to have reclassified students as “Limited English Proficient” but NOT special education. Why? Because then “they would become eligible for McKay vouchers.” That’s certainly one way to game the system.

Second, Jay himself directs readers to a brand-new Education Next posting by a University of Arkansas colleague. Patrick Wolf, who has studied the effects of the Milwaukee voucher program more comprehensively than anyone alive, tears apart recent accusations that voucher schools are systematically denying access to disabled students.

After providing a painstaking explanation as to why that isn’t legal or possible under the program, Wolf then gets to the root cause of the misinformation:

The origin of this entire kerfuffle was a DPI press release on March 29, 2011, stating that the private schools in the MPCP “reported about 1.6 percent of choice students have a disability”. When I asked DPI officials how they got that information, since state law does not authorize either the schools of DPI to ask MPCP students if they have a disability, they responded that they calculated the rate based on the percentage of MPCP students who were given accommodations on the state accountability exam. It is well-known that only a minority of all students with disabilities are given testing accommodations, so the 1.6 percent rate is clearly both an invalid and unreliable measure of the true student disability rate in MPCP. As researchers, and not government officials, we were able to collect more reliable information about the rates of student disability in the MPCP and calculate that it is 7.5 to 14.6 percent, with our best estimate being 11.4 percent. [emphasis added]

So let me get this straight. On one hand, you have some Florida public schools, afraid of losing students, reclassifying many of them in ways to protect the school’s test scores but not so they might be able to exercise choice under another program. And on the other hand, you have a Wisconsin government agency pretending that the kids not taking tests are really the much larger group of all kids with disabilities, effectively making private voucher schools look bad.

Who does this kind of deceitful manipulation hurt most? The neediest students, of course. (The kind of students who would most benefit from a scholarship tax credit program for Colorado.) Either by preventing access to an existing choice program or by scaring other jurisdictions away from providing expanded options. I have to agree with Forster about what is ultimately the cleanest and best solution: “All students should be eligible for vouchers – then there’s no system to game.”

Hey! For that, I’d give up the chance to play Angry Birds. Ever. Again.