Standardized Tests: States Should Let Parents Decide

Adam Emerson of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute makes some reasonable-sounding arguments as to why states should require private school choice students to continue taking state standardized tests. As supporters of school choice, Adam and I are seated at the same table—we just disagree on who sets the menu.

Parents care about more than scores.

A recent Friedman Foundation report, More Than Scores: An Analysis of Why and How Parents Choose Private Schools, I co-authored with Jim Kelly provides evidence that parents who receive tax-credit scholarships for their children are ready, willing, and able to be informed consumers of K–12 education and are not particularly interested in student outcomes on standardized tests.

Nearly 99 percent of our surveyed parents are happy with their selection of a private school relative to their former public schools. And why are they satisfied? They’re getting “better student discipline,” a “better learning environment,” “smaller class sizes,” “improved student safety,” and “more individual attention” for their children. Only 10 percent of parents listed scores on standardized tests in their top five reasons for choosing a private school. No parent said it was the most important reason why they chose a private school.

Their desires make complete sense when considering the many learning, social, and cultural challenges children face, including different types of intelligence, learning needs, mental and physical health needs, peer pressure, and safety concerns.

In our report we even referenced a Thomas B. Fordham Institute study that found parents place a low priority on standardized test scores. We also highlighted a study by Paul Teske and colleagues that used focus groups of low- and middle-income parents showing parents do not treat test score information as a good measure of school quality.

State governments should not be in the business of telling parents what metrics they must use when judging what schools are best for their children.

Parents create transparency and accountability.

I agree with Adam—you get more of what you measure. If states require testing of private school students, then measured test performance will increase.

But, as Jay Greene notes, the ideal school choice program has no need to require state testing:

Most markets generate consumer information without government mandates for them to do so. For example, I have more information than you can imagine to pick a hotel or restaurant through Trip Advisor, Yelp, Urban Spoon, etc… and other market sources of information about education are already springing up as choice expands without government mandates.

Indeed, in our survey, 79 percent of low- and middle-income parents said if a private school did not provide them with their desired information it “would” impact their school choice decision; another 20 percent said it “might.”

Like other walks of life, parents will be able to get information about the relative quality of private schools if offered school choice. In a competitive environment, private schools can withhold information from parents or crowd-sourcing websites like—at their peril.

Let parents regulate private schools.

Advocates of school choice need to change the zeitgeist.

In policy debates, opponents work to weigh school choice proposals down with many of the cumbersome rules and regulations that apply to traditional public schools. Some school choice supporters go along with those proposals for reasons of political expedience or the promotion of school quality or high standards.

However, once those rules and regulations govern private schools that accept school choice students, the public school establishment will seek to “capture” the procedures used to judge private school quality and compliance with state regulations. The reporting of test scores and other regulations will be used to cast private schools in the most negative light possible.

Further top-down accountability approaches have not served public schools well. Why in the world do we want to impose those approaches on parents and children who have rejected the over-regulated public education model?

Compromise is typically inevitable, but it is costly to do it on the front-end of a debate, especially when it may further homogenize our K–12 education system—eliminating the need to even have a menu.