Florida’s A+ Program may be the most controversial education reform program in the country, because it combines two extremely contentious education reforms: vouchers and high-stakes testing. Florida’s high-stakes test, the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), is used to grade schools on a scale from A to F. If a school receives two F grades in any four-year period, it is considered to be chronically failing and its students become eligible to receive vouchers they can use to attend other public or private schools.
The theory behind the A+ Program is that chronically failing public schools will have an incentive to improve if they must compete with other schools for students and the funding they generate. This study identifies five categories of low-performing schools based on the degree of threat each school faces from voucher competition: Voucher Eligible Schools (where students are already receiving vouchers), Voucher Threatened Schools (where one more F will make vouchers available), Formerly Threatened Schools (which used to be Voucher Threatened but no longer are), and two categories of similarly low-performing schools not facing any immediate threat of voucher competition. It then examines test score improvements on the FCAT and on the Stanford-9, a nationally respected standardized test, to see whether low-performing schools facing a greater degree of threat from voucher competition made better improvements than low-performing schools facing a lesser degree of threat from vouchers.
The results demonstrate the following:
- Florida’s low-performing schools are improving in direct proportion to the challenge they face from voucher competition. These improvements are real, not the result of test gaming, demographic shifts, or the statistical phenomenon of “regression to the mean.”
- Schools already facing competition from vouchers showed the greatest improvements of all five categories of low-performing schools, improving by 9.3 scale score points on the FCAT math test, 10.1 points on the FCAT reading test, and 5.1 percentile points on the Stanford-9 math test relative to Florida public schools that were not in any low-performing category.
- Schools threatened with the prospect of vouchers showed the second greatest improvements, making relative gains of 6.7 scale points on the FCAT math test, 8.2 points on the FCAT reading test, and 3.0 percentile points on the Stanford-9 math test.
- Low-performing schools that have never received any grade other than a D, or that have received at least one D since FCAT grading began, produced small and indistinguishable gains, respectively, relative to Florida public schools that were not low-performing. While these schools were similar to schools facing voucher competition, they failed to make similar gains in the absence of competitive incentives.
- Some researchers theorize that failing schools improve because of the stigma of a failing grade rather than the threat of voucher competition. The results of this study contradict this thesis. Schools that received one F in 1998-99 but none since are no longer exposed to the potential of voucher competition. These schools actually lost ground relative to non-low-performing Florida public schools, supporting the conclusion that once the threat of vouchers goes away, so does the incentive for failing schools to improve.