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Research Finds Positive Outcomes for North Carolina Opportunity Scholarship Students

• Adam Peshek

Today, a new study was released that looks at academic performance in the North Carolina Opportunity Scholarship Program (NC OSP). The study, led by Dr. Anna Egalite and colleagues at North Carolina State University, finds “large positive impacts associated with voucher usage in North Carolina.” The results were for reading, math, and language, and were statistically significant for the first two years of the program.

NC OSP launched in 2014 and allows low-income student to attend private schools with modest scholarships worth no more than $4,200 annually. Since it was launched, the program has seen steady growth and served more than 7,300 students in the 2017-18 school year. Thanks to the North Carolina General Assembly, the program is funded to grow by $10 million each year for the next decade – meaning this program is poised to see continued growth.

The design of the study is worth mentioning, as it could be a model for other states seeking to learn more about the effectiveness of their private choice programs.

To get a better “apples-to-apples” comparison, the research team administered a norm-referenced test to participants – the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS). This is typical of many statewide choice programs across the country, but the researchers also administered the ITBS to a sample of public school students who were eligible but chose not to participate in NC OSP. This will allow the researchers to compare scholarship students to their peers on the same test for years to come.

Some argue that requiring private schools to administer the state test is a preferred approach, but public schools have an inherent advantage when it comes to a state test – especially in early years of a program’s evaluation. Every public school uses a curriculum specifically aligned to state standards, which the state test is based on. This fact, and the various consequences and incentives aligned to performance on state tests, naturally leads to public schools focusing their efforts on improving student performance on state tests.

Egalite and her colleagues note, however, that “the Iowa Test of Basic Skills is a norm-referenced test that is not aligned with any one curriculum.” Performance on this low-stakes test – which has no bearing on school performance designations, funding, sanctions, etc. – can serve as a true proxy of student performance across different types of schools.

As states struggle to find the right mix of autonomy and accountability in choice programs, this model of testing a random sample of participants and non-participants via a low-stakes test should be a model worth exploring – especially if the state can produce a true random sample from each group.

About the author

Adam Peshek @AdamPeshek

Adam Peshek is Managing Director of Opportunity Policy at ExcelinEd, where he provides strategic support to state leaders interested in developing, adopting, and implementing policies that increase educational options for children. He has provided expert testimony in more than a dozen state legislatures and is a frequent commentator on ESAs, school choice, and education policy across the country. He is also the is the co-editor of the first published volume on ESAs, Education Savings Accounts: The New Frontier in School Choice. Adam currently resides in Atlanta, Georgia and is a Senior Fellow with the Beacon Center of Tennessee.