For years policy experts from free market think tanks have been arguing that charter schools and vouchers boost test scores. Last year Julie Novack’s report for the Institute of Public Affairs insisted that: "Voucher programs around the world have been shown to improve the academic performance of students" (pdf). But recent evaluation findings from Milwaukee have shifted the debate in the US. Faced with disappointing results, supporters of parental choice are now arguing that other things matter more. The Heritage Foundation’s Jason Richwine writes that sensible parents aren’t obsessing about test scores, instead what they really want are "schools that are safe, that cultivate a positive attitude about learning, and that best fit their children’s abilities and interests."
The American Enterprise Institute’s Charles Murray argues that test scores are a poor measure of school performance because schools are unable to control most of the things that drive children’s performance on standarised tests. In the New York Times he writes:
The evaluation by the School Choice Demonstration Project, a national research group that matched more than 3,000 students from the choice program and from regular public schools, found that pupils in the choice program generally had “achievement growth rates that are comparable” to similar Milwaukee public-school students. This is just one of several evaluations of school choice programs that have failed to show major improvements in test scores, but the size and age of the Milwaukee program, combined with the rigor of the study, make these results hard to explain away.
So let’s not try to explain them away. Why not instead finally acknowledge that standardized test scores are a terrible way to decide whether one school is better than another? This is true whether the reform in question is vouchers, charter schools, increased school accountability, smaller class sizes, better pay for all teachers, bonuses for good teachers, firing of bad teachers — measured by changes in test scores, each has failed to live up to its hype.
In the absense of data like Milwaukee’s, the debate in Australia is different. Here it’s right wing columnists like Janet Albrechtsen who are most excited by testing. In a 2008 blog post Albrechtsen praised New York City education chancellor Joel Klein’s approach of encouraging parents to "raise hell" if their children’s test scores came up short and suggested that public schools should face competition like they do in New York City. But back in the US the American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess writes that "choice enthusiasts have been overselling the miracle, restorative powers of choice for years." He acknowledges that, on its own, testing and offering parents choice probably doesn’t do much to improve children’s test scores.