Last year’s standardized test scores for students at the state’s largest recipient of publicly-funded school vouchers, Trinity Christian School in Fayetteville, are public now — but the information doesn’t provide parents with enough information about how good of a job the school is doing to educate students, according to an education and law expert from the North Carolina Justice Center.

“These test scores don’t tell you if student learning is improving over time or if students are on track toward being college or career ready,” said Matt Ellinwood, the director of the Education and Law project at the NC Justice Center.*

Trinity Christian School, which is also at the center of the an embezzlement investigation by the state, administered at the end of the 2016 school year the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills to 79 students that were in the third grade or higher and identified as voucher students, or those who used taxpayer-funded Opportunity Scholarships to attend the private religious school.

Per state law, the results of those tests were reported to the state agency that administers school vouchers (NC State Education Assistance Authority). The SEAA furnished those test scores to the Fletcher Foundation after we made a public records request.

From the SEAA:

Trinity Christian School is shown below with the name of the test and the number of students who were Opportunity Scholarship recipients in third grade and higher for the 2015-2016 school year. The percentages represent the number of those students who scored below the 50th percentile and the percentage of students who scored at the 50th percentile or higher.

 

Reading (NPR)   Language (NPR)   Mathematics (NPR)  
Number of tested students % below 50th % at or above 50th % below 50th % at or above 50th % below 50th % at or above 50th
Trinity Christian School (Fayetteville)
Iowa Tests
79 27 73 29 71 16 84

 

The Opportunity Scholarships law doesn’t require private voucher schools to provide any more nuance in their test data than what is detailed above by Trinity Christian — and Ellinwood points out that these results don’t provide parents — or taxpayers — with a good understanding of how students are faring academically in private voucher schools.

“There’s just not much to look at here, especially when it comes to growth” said Ellinwood. “If you want to see if children are improving from year to year, you can’t know that — all you can see is whether students are performing below or above average on a test given on a certain day.”

Public schools are required to report much more data when it comes to student test data, says Ellinwood. Not only is student testing data published by public schools more detailed — broken out by race, grade level, whether or not students are on track for career or college, etc.—the public can also see how a cohort of students is improving over time at a school.

That growth data is considered an important indicator of how well a school educates students and plays a role, albeit a small one, in the letter grade that a school receives as a part of the state’s public school accountability system. Private voucher schools don’t have to take part in a state accountability system despite receiving taxpayer dollars.

Duke University law professor Jane Wettach says there is good news to report—Trinity Christian’s scores as compared with the 34 other private voucher schools that were required to report their test data for 2015-16 were relatively high—among the top third.

“Trinity Christian is one of the ten schools at which their test takers were reported to score above the 50th percentile in reading, language and math,” said Wettach.

But Wettach also cautioned against drawing too many conclusions using this information.

“All of these schools are taking different tests, and there’s no nuance in the data — you can’t look at this by grade level or race and not all voucher students are required to be tested — only those in the third grade and higher,” said Wettach.

Because private voucher schools are allowed to use any nationally normed standardized test, comparing results in a meaningful way against the student test scores at another private or public school is impossible.

It’s also worth noting that only voucher schools that have at least 25 voucher students enrolled are required to make their test score data public — that’s just 9 percent of all of the state’s 300+ private voucher schools, said Wettach. These schools aren’t required to post their test score results anywhere easily accessible, either.

“You have to make a public records request to get test score data,” Wettach said—and she speculated that it’s likely very few parents take this extra step when considering whether or not to attend a private school.

Ellinwood said the popular notion that the ultimate measure of accountability for private voucher schools is parental assessment and decision-making—if a school is bad, then a parent will simply enroll their child somewhere else—doesn’t make sense.

“I just don’t see how you can have parental accountability without a reasonable amount of of information to make an informed decision and actually hold these private schools accountable,” said Ellinwood.

Trinity Christian has received nearly $1 million in school vouchers (known formally as Opportunity Scholarships) since the program’s inception in 2014 — more than any other private school in North Carolina. The majority of its student population, about 60 percent, uses vouchers to attend the school.

The school voucher program allows low-income families to use up to $4,200 annually in state-funded vouchers at private, mostly religious schools. While proponents of the program say it offers low-income families access to better education alternatives than what may be offered by public schools, critics point to the fact that there is not enough transparency and accountability associated with the state-funded program.

Trinity Christian made headlines earlier this month when one of its employees, athletic director Heath Vandevender, was arrested on charges of embezzling nearly $400,000 in employee state tax withholdings.

Vandevender’s father, Dennis, is Trinity Christian’s head of school and a pastor at the church that is affiliated with the school. The elder Vandevender continues to employ his son Heath, who coaches the school’s highly competitive basketball team, while he awaits trial.

*The Fletcher Foundation provides financial support to the North Carolina Justice Center.

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