School choice benefits extend far beyond test scores


School choice benefits extend far beyond test scores
Urban minority students enrolled in district school alternatives more likely to graduate high school, enroll in college

February 4, 2016—When James S. Coleman reported in the 1980s that Catholic schools better serve minority students than do the traditional public schools, critics questioned the methodology of his research. New public school alternatives with lottery-based admissions today enable researchers to more rigorously evaluate the impact of school choice on student achievement—and their findings reinforce many of Coleman’s conclusions. In “Schools of Choice: Expanding opportunity for urban minority students,” Education Next executive editor Martin R. West (Harvard), finds that, despite not having a consistent impact on standardized test scores, charter schools and voucher programs improve a student’s chances of graduating from high school and enrolling in college, with the greatest benefits concentrated among urban minority students.

Today Catholic school enrollment is outpaced by charter school enrollment, where West observes comparable long-term benefits for students, as well as test score improvements for certain groups. A recent Boston study found that urban charter middle school attendance increases student achievement by roughly 15 percent of a standard deviation in reading and 32 percent of a standard deviation in math (see figure below). The latter result is large enough to close more than two-thirds of the black-white achievement gap in the state while students are in middle school. Non-urban charter school attendance, however, produced negative effects.

Other studies of charter school attendance in both Boston and New York City report long-term benefits such as decreases in teenage pregnancy and incarceration rates, as well as increased likelihood of enrolling in a four-year rather than two-year college.

Analyses of voucher programs show similar gains. In Washington, D.C., voucher usage improved students’ chances of graduating by 21 percentage points. Voucher usage in New York City has also been shown to increase college enrollment (10 percent compared to control group) and bachelor degree attainment (27 percent compared to control group).

School culture is likely the key driver for the academic benefits of urban charters, West says. Such schools are more likely to take a “no-excuses” approach that features high expectations, strict student discipline, and longer school days and years.

West warns that research focused solely on standardized test scores will understate the benefits of school choice programs, since effects on educational attainment are stronger. “The chief beneficiaries of policies that expand parental choice appear to be urban minority students,” he says, “and the benefits of school choice for these students extend beyond what tests can measure.”

Schools of Choice: Expanding opportunity for urban minority students” will be available Tuesday, February 9 on and will appear in the Spring 2016 issue of Education Next, on newsstands by March 1.

About the Author: Martin R. West is associate professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and executive editor of Education Next.

About Education Next: Education Next is a scholarly journal committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform, published by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School. For more information, please visit

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