A Deep Dive Into Schools Getting Accountability Act Money

AL.com’s Trish Crain, as she always does, has taken a very close look at which private schools are getting the bulk of scholarship money from the Alabama Accountability Act.  You can see her work here.

While there are far more than 100 schools participating in this program, Trish just looked at the 41 which are getting about three-fourths of the scholarships.

We dissected the numbers even more and came up with the following:

Birmingham has nine schools on the list with a total of 461 scholarships.  Of these, 229 are to students “zoned” to attend a “failing” school.  That is 49.6 percent.  But remember, “zoned” does not mean they were attending a “failing” school.  The actual number of students attending a “failing” school prior to getting a scholarship is not disclosed.

Mobile is second on the list with seven schools and 454 scholarships.  Of these, 45.3 percent are zoned for “failing” schools.

Huntsville is at number three with 433 scholarships at seven schools.  Only 19 scholarships go to students zoned for a “failing” school.  That is 4.3 percent.

Montgomery is next with 315 scholarships in five schools.  Of these, 176 are to students zoned for “failing” schools.  That is 55.8 percent.

But statewide the numbers are even more stark.  The 41 schools in the AL.com study have a total scholarshi8p enrollment of 2,741.  Only 865 of which are zoned for “failing” schools.  That is 31.5 percent.  Nine of the schools getting scholarships have ZERO students zoned for a “failing” school.

When this law was passed in 2013 the public was told it was all about help students in failing schools.  But numbers do not back this contention.  For example, two schools in Cullman County have 91 scholarship students.  There are no “failing” schools in either Cullman cotu or Cullman County school systems.  The same situation exists in Decatur where one school has 43 scholarships.  Yet there is not a single “failing” school in the school systems of Morgan County, Decatur city or Hartselle city.

It is impossible to study these numbers without noticing how many Catholic schools are participating.  A total of 16 such schools have 879 scholarship students out of a total enrollment of 4,894.  Which means almost 18 percent of the student body at these 16 are getting a scholarship.

And once again we remind you that every single dollar going to a private school scholarship is a dollar that did not go to the Education Trust Fund.  Which is another way of saying that public school students are really paying for these scholarships.

Dothan Eagle Questions Accountability Act

Under the headline: $30 M should produce dramatic results, not indiscernible difference, the Dothan Eagle has joined the chorus of those questioning the value of the Alabama Accountability Act.

Here’s what they had to say recently:

As Dothan school officials wrangle over strategies to reshape the city school system to make better use of the funds available for education, an interesting report has emerged from the University of Alabama’s Institute for Social Science Research. The Institute performed an evaluation of the Alabama Accountability Act, the 2013 law that established a mechanism to compensate parents of children zoned for “failing” public schools with $3,500 tax credits to help offset the cost of sending those children to private school.
The study evaluated the academic achievement test outcomes of the 2016-2017 recipients of AAA scholarships compared to their counterparts in public school. Not to put too fine a point on it, the study found no discernible improvement in academic performance of the students in private school with AAA scholarships.

With such results, it’s a wonder there’s not a procession of taxpayers descending on the state house with torches. Under the Alabama Accountability Act, the state spends $30 million from the Special Education Trust Fund each year to send a small collection of students to private school because they’re zoned for public schools deemed as “failing.”
It was a dubious plan from the start, but academic test results aren’t the sole determining factor when weighing whether to move a student from a failing school. Still, these findings suggest that the $30 million in taxpayer funds spent on AAA scholarships might be better spent in an effort to improve public schools attended by hundreds of thousands of Alabama schoolchildren.

Alabama lawmakers must revisit this boondoggle at the first opportunity.”

Having lived in Dothan for 10 years, I am very familiar with The Dothan Eagle.  This is one of the most conservative newspapers in Alabama and it is significant that they call the money spent on this legislation into question.

A Closer Look At Accountability Act And Student Performance

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.



Anniston Star Sees Little Value In Accountability Act

After watching the lack of performance by the Alabama Accountability Act for the last five years, The Anniston Star takes a look at the recent University of Alabama study of academic performance of students getting scholarships to private schools through this program and points out in the following editorial the magic promised by supporters of this bill has failed to come to fruition.

“Since its creation, the Alabama Accountability Act has neither revolutionized educational opportunities in our state nor silenced its thunderous critics. There’s little doubt either of those outcomes will soon change.

We say that because of a new study released this week by the Institute for Social Science Research at the University of Alabama that essentially paints the AAA as middling legislation that’s produced tepid results. No home runs, no outright failures, the study said. So much for the grandiose claims by the AAA’s legislative supporters who pushed the program as a way to help low-income students move out of schools on the highly criticized “failing” schools list and improve their education.

Let’s point out several highlights of the study:

Students on AAA scholarships frequently did better academically than low-income students in public schools, but they didn’t perform better than the state overall.

On average, scholarship students’ academic results did not improve from their previous levels.

A majority of students on AAA scholarships did not post gains or losses in percentile scores on the ACT Aspire, Iowa Test of Basic Skills, and Stanford test. However, scholarship students did better than low-income public school students on the ACT Aspire test in almost every grade in reading and math.

Eighty percent of families who take advantage of the AAA do so because of bullying and school safety issues, not because their public school is considered failing by the state guidelines.

In truth, little with the AAA’s place in the sphere of Alabama public education has changed since the program began in 2013. It has helped a significant number of families move their children out of undesirable situations, but it remains a flash point for the argument between school-choice advocates, defenders of public schools and skeptics of private schools’ role.

Lesley Searcy, executive director of the Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund, told the Associated Press that “the vast majority of children are starting the program three years below grade level. While there is always room for improvement, these results should be encouraging to families in the program and for lawmakers looking for ways to improve education.” AAA critic Larry Lee, a Montgomery County Board of Education member, told the AP in an email that he estimated the program had diverted $5.4 million from the school system. “Yet many elementary schools are struggling to just get textbooks,” Lee said.

Just as important, if not more so, is that the AAA hasn’t demonstrably addressed the overwhelming need to improve the quality of public education in Alabama — not just for low-income students, but for all of them. Two examples: Earlier this year, U.S. News and World Reports ranked public education in Alabama 47th nationally, and Education Week ranked it slightly better at 43rd. That’s not good enough. In time, the AAA may become a small component of an improved version of public education in Alabama, but until a more holistic approach lifts the weakest schools and raises the bar statewide, there’s no reason to be satisfied with these results.”

In summary, this newspaper realizes that we can better spend money helping all 730,000 public school students in the state, instead of continuing to spend millions and millions of dollars on just a handful of them.


University Of Alabama Study Shows Accountability Act Scholarship Students No Better Academically Than Public School Students

The Alabama Revenue Department has made public another study by the University of Alabama assessing performance of students attending private schools on Accountability Act scholarships in comparison to students in public schools.  Grades were reviewed from the 2016-17 academic year..

Bottom line: Scholarship students do no better academically than public school students.

The report states,” …comparison between the scholarship students and the students attending public schools in Alabama generally indicate that the two groups continue to fall short of meeting the benchmarks on standardized tests.”

To see the entire report, go here.

Following is the executive summary of the report.

Points that are especially noteworthy:

  •  34 percent of students were “zoned” to attend a failing school.  This means the percentage who actually may have attended a failing schools was significantly less.
  • 73 percent of students had been in their private school for at least three years.
  • On average, over time, participating in the scholarship program was not associated with significant improvement on standardized tests scores”.

Once again we have to question why we are diverting $30 million annually from the Education Trust Fund to support a program yielding such limited results.

Executive Summary

This report fulfills the evaluation requirements of the 2013 Alabama Accountability Act by reporting on the academic achievement of the 2016-2017 scholarship recipients.

The report focuses on three objectives: 1. Describe the academic achievement of students in the scholarship program. 2. Compare scholarship recipients to Alabama public school students. 3. Assess changes in achievement across time.

Scholarship Granting Organizations provided demographic information and achievement test scores for scholarship recipients. Achievement test score information for Alabama public school students was retrieved from the State Department of Education website.

Some challenges were encountered in conducting the evaluation:

The lack of a uniform achievement test among schools constrained the description of the achievement of scholarship recipients and the comparisons that could be made to Alabama public school students.

Norm-referenced tests (e.g., the Stanford Achievement Test) and criterion-referenced tests (e.g., ACT Aspire) are based on different standards and cannot be directly compared.

Some achievement tests were used by only one school or included only a small number of students, making analyses unreliable.

The test score information available from the Alabama State Department of Education only includes the percentage of students in proficiency groups based on ACT Aspire and ACT College Entrance Exam scores, which limited the types of analyses that could be conducted.

Inconsistencies in test score reporting from schools and missing test data limited the number of students who could be included in the evaluation sample.

The evaluation was based upon test scores from 1,991 scholarship recipients attending 114 schools in 43 counties. This represented 76% of the scholarship recipients in the grades for which testing was required. These students varied in their demographic characteristics:

Number of years receiving a scholarship: o 15% were first time scholarship recipients. o 11% were two-time scholarship recipients. o 51% were three-time recipients. o 22% were in their fourth year. • 90% were eligible for free/reduced lunch subsidies. • 34% were zoned to attend a failing school. • 62% were Black/African American, 20% were White/Caucasian, and 11% were Hispanic..

Although this report can show trends for this subsample of scholarship recipients, due to the necessity of excluding a significant proportion of scholarship recipients (24%) from analyses, findings may not be representative of all of the scholarship recipients.

Findings for Objective 1: Describe the academic achievement of students in the scholarship program. • On norm-referenced tests, scholarship recipients generally performed below the average U.S. student at their grade level. • On criterion-referenced tests, the majority of scholarship recipients failed to meet benchmark proficiency scores. • Outcomes were even poorer for African-American participants who made up the majority of scholarship recipients (65%). • These findings are similar to those of the National Assessment of Educational Progress for students attending public schools in Alabama.

Findings for Objective 2: Compare the learning achievement of scholarship recipients to students scholarship recipients and students attending Alabama public schools.  .• There were very few subject areas in which more than 50% of the students met proficiency standards for either group of students. • For the ACT Aspire, comparisons did not present a clear pattern across subjects and grade levels to indicate that one group performed better or worse than the other. • Overall, scholarship recipients in the 11th grade performed about the same as their public school counterparts on the ACT.

Findings for Objective 3: Assess changes in achievement across time. • On average, over time, participating in the scholarship program was not associated with significant improvement on standardized tests scores. • On the ACT Aspire, students were more likely to remain in a non-proficient category than to improve. Although proficiency rates for 2016-2017 were higher for scholarship students than those of Alabama poverty students, the majority of students in both groups did not meet proficiency benchmarks. • The overall lack of change over time follows the same pattern seen in public school students in Alabama and is likely not attributable to participation in the scholarship program.

Issues for Future Evaluations: • Drawing conclusions regarding the academic achievement of scholarship recipients relative to students attending public schools depends on the number of schools with scholarship recipients that use tests that are utilized by ALSDE in the future. • ALSDE discontinued the use of the ACT Aspire for the 2017-2018 academic year, and may change achievement tests again in 2018-2019. This will further constrain comparisons between attending Alabama public schools over time.

Six Years Later, 3,436 Students Still Waiting For Help From Accountability Act

When the Alabama Accountability Act was passed in 2013 we were told over and over that it was all about helping low income students.  And we were told that competition would save “failing” schools.

It went like this: some schools would work really hard to get out from under the “failing school” stigma.  Because their students could transfer to non-failing schools or get scholarships to private schools, either of which would cause them to lose funding, they would compete hard to prevent this from happening.

But the accountability act did not tell these schools what they needed to do to get better, nor did it provide them extra resources to help struggling students.  We just patted them on the head and wished them well.  Didn’t matter if there was not another non-failing school in their system to transfer to, nor a private school participating in the scholarship program, we just wished them well.

Today, there are eight schools that were on the first “failing” list in 2013 that are still there.  There are 3,436 students in these schools.  Of these, 72.1 percent are black and 92.5 percent get free lunches.

They are: Bullock County high; Carver middle in Greene County; B. T. Washington middle and Scarborough Middle in Mobile;  Bellingrath middle in Montgomery; Camden School of Arts in Wilcox County; Hudson Middle in the Selma city system and Central High in Tuscaloosa city.  Basically they are forgotten schools full of invisible students.

Since 2013 we have diverted $147 million from the Education Trust Fund to provide scholarships to private schools.  But how much help have we diverted to those 3,436 students in the eight schools just listed?

Look carefully at the language in the first Alabama Accountability Act and you find it mentions “tax credits” 28 times and “failing schools” 27 times.  This bill was amended in 2015 to restate the purpose of the legislation.  Interestingly enough, the 2015 version mentions “tax credits” 22 times and “failing schools” only 10 times.

This would probably not be a surprise to any of the 3,436 students in these eight schools.