Both critics and proponents of Alabama’s school choice program have been waiting for years for the chance to compare the test scores of school-choice kids to their counterparts in the state’s poorest schools.

Looks like they’ll wait a little longer.

The authors of the first major study of K-12 student test scores under the Alabama Accountability Act found that it’s not yet possible to compare kids in “failing” public schools with their counterparts who accepted scholarships to private schools.

The reason? Alabama’s public schools all use the same standardized test to track their students’ progress. Private schools use 18 different tests.

“There is no compelling evidence to suggest that scholarship recipients as a group performed differently than their counterparts attending public schools,” University of Alabama researcher Joan Barth wrote in her study of Accountability Act test scores, released this month. “And the inability to provide compelling evidence is largely due to limitations in the information that was available.”

State officials called on Barth and her colleagues to provide the first assessment of the Accountability Act, a much-debated 2013 law that allows students zoned for failing public schools – the lowest-performing schools on standardized tests – to withdraw from those schools and go to private schools with state help.

Under the law, students’ parents get a tax credit to help offset the cost of the transfer. The law also set up scholarship-granting organizations, funded by donors who also get a tax credit, to help students transfer to private schools.

Critics of the Accountability Act say it needlessly siphons money from public schools. Alabama’s income tax revenue goes largely to schools, so the more tax credits claimed by parents and scholarship donors, the less money public schools have to spend.

A crucial – and still unanswered – question in the debate is whether students who opt for private schools do better than they would if they’d stayed in public school. The original 2013 Accountability Act called for collection and reporting of school-by-school testing data. A 2015 revision to the bill changed that, requiring a broader report that compares scholarship students to public school students.

Barth’s study is that report, and the results it found are uneven. On the ACT Aspire, the test used by public schools statewide, scholarship recipients in sixth grade did worse than their public school, below-poverty, while scholarship students in seventh and 10th grades did better.

But only 137 of the 1,777 students considered in the study actually took the ACT Aspire. Hundreds more took other widely used tests such as the Stanford 10 and the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, which don’t directly compare with the tests public school kids are taking. Twelve schools used unique tests that no other school used.

Attempts to reach Barth Tuesday were unsuccessful, but in a July interview Barth predicted that the profusion of tests would present a challenge for researchers. In their final report, researchers recommended the state require private schools participating in the Accountability Act to use the ACT Aspire just as public schools do.

Private schools may be reluctant to make that change.

“We like the schools that participate with us to have that autonomy,” said Sonya DiCarlo, spokeswoman for the Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund, one of the organizations that provides scholarships under the Accountability Act.

 

Charlie Maniscalco, principal of Sacred Heart Catholic School in Anniston, said any decision to change to his school’s tests would have to come from the diocese. Sacred Heart uses the Iowa test, but he says comparing test scores with public schools hasn’t been a major focus.

“We usually don’t compare those apples,” he said. “We just try to provide them with a good education.”

Public K-12 schools in Alabama have made their test scores available, at the school level, since at least the 1990s. A new reporting system, giving each public school an A through F grade based on test scores, is expected to be rolled out in December.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.