Testing makes McKay Scholarships accountable to parents

by Allison Hertog

In Robyn Rennick’s post on Florida’s McKay Scholarships for Students With Disabilities last week, she argued that standardized testing measures are “inappropriate,” even “cruel,” for disabled children due to their diverse levels of achievement and in some cases immeasurable levels of progress. But this assumes that standardized testing is a “one size fits all” accountability measure. In reality, there are dozens, even hundreds, of standardized assessments that are designed for every segment of the student population – whether children are learning self-care or calculus.  The choice of test can be left to the private school, not the state.

More importantly, standardized testing is perhaps the only way to provide parents with the data they need to make informed choices about schools, and it is emerging as the overwhelming accountability trend for school voucher programs nationwide. Without standardized testing data, the McKay program cannot prove that it’s effective for students – the vast majority of whom are not intellectually disabled and spend most of their time in classrooms alongside typical students. According to the most recent state Department of Education report, only 7.5 percent of all McKay students are labeled Intellectually Disabled, though there are clearly some others with cognitive deficits who are labeled with other disabilities, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Every voucher program enacted or expanded in 2011 and 2012 (in Indiana, Ohio, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Colorado and Washington, D.C.) – except for the McKay Scholarship in 2011 – included standardized testing measures. What’s more, the Romney Education Plan, which proposes to voucherize federal special-education funding, includes annual student accountability testing for private schools precisely so that parents can make informed decisions. McKay is clearly behind that trend, which is an unfortunate development for this once ground-breaking program.

The voucher programs available to more than 50 percent of all K-12 students in Louisiana and Indiana include both special and general education students, and they require all of them to take the annual state assessment. In Indiana, the only voucher students who would be exempt from the state assessment are the same ones who are exempt in traditional public schools – students with significant intellectual deficits. In addition, Indiana has developed some interesting solutions to deal with potentially statistically invalid testing results due to small enrollment in private schools.

In Milwaukee, where legislators learned the hard way that private schools need to be held accountable and mandated a state standardized testing requirement 20 years after the voucher program began, about 10 percent of participants are special-needs students. Without that data, Patrick J. Wolf would not have been able to show in his study that voucher students there are performing at higher levels than their public school counterparts in reading and math in the upper grades, for example. And without standardized progress testing, McKay schools have little defense against reports that they are occasionally magnets for fraud and abuse of public funds.

The newest special needs voucher program – Ohio’s Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship – as well as one of the oldest programs – Utah’s Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarship – also require the annual assessment of students. In Ohio, like the Louisiana, Indiana and Wisconsin programs, which admit but were not designed for special needs students, private schools must administer the state assessment test annually to scholarship students. In Utah, participating private schools must annually assess each scholarship student’s academic progress using any “formal” testing procedure they choose that is “carried out under prescribed and uniform conditions.” And those results must be shared with each child’s parents and a representative from the school district.

A 2008 legislative performance audit of the Utah voucher program revealed that 89 percent of parents reported that their disabled child’s academic achievement had increased in private school. Perhaps many McKay parents are satisfied with the program, but do they know if their children are making academic progress? As an attorney who represents Florida parents of disabled students, I can report anecdotally that many McKay parents don’t know until it may be too late whether their children are learning the skills they need to be gainfully employed. Are our dedicated school reformers in the Florida Legislature willing to stand by and watch our once visionary voucher program fall behind the curve? I certainly hope not.

Allison Hertog is a member of the Step Up for Students governance board and is the founding attorney of Florida School Partners, a private law firm whose mission is to help parents access the right placement – public or private – for their special needs children.

Editor’s Note: Two other blogs weighed in last week on the McKay testing issue: Choice Words and Sherman Dorn.


  1. Robyn Rennick’s position is inconsistent with the US Department of Education, the Florida Board of Education’s position for Students with Disabilities on the ESEA Waiver, and even with former Bush Administration Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. Ms Spellings was asked at a Jeb Bush sponsored event what she thought of a voucher program without academic accountability and she responded that she would never support a voucher program without academic accountability.

    One of the McKay Scholarship’s key competitive advantages is the lack of standardized testing, Unfortunately, this robs the parents of knowing what progress their child is making.

    We have seen McKay students get As and Bs on their report card, even as they fall 2, 3 and even 4 years below grade level in their reading comprehension

    I support the McKay Scholarship, but believe we need accountability if the schools want to receive state and federal funding.


    • I am in agreement that something must be done to hold McKay schools accountable. My son, using a McKay, received all As and Bs on his report card but was below grad level in 2 subjects according to and IOWA test administered. And, 2 grade levels behind in 1 of those subjects according to the CAT. At the end of the school year, receiving his school books, the math and language arts books were not even half completed!! Many other parents reported the same problem in the school.
      I reported this to the Department of Education and to the McKay Scholarship and both said that private schools are not regulated. That is a good thing and obviously a bad thing. What’s the solution? I love the McKay but not that particular school that is not doing their job and no one seems to care from the state. ???

  2. The citing of Florida’s State Board of Education and Margaret Spellings of NCLB fame do not provide credibility to a decision to equate the administration of the state test to special education students. It may be appropriate for some who function near grade level. It fails to be an appropriate match to the learner for many. I disagree that there are rules for exclusion for ESE students whp take either the FAAR or the FCAT . It has been a decision made at IEP meetings. I stand corrected if someone can provide me the rules of which I am unfamiliar.I would truly love to see them as I see intereference with parental rights should they exist. Please post such rules for my review. Fair practice in testing seems to be lost to political bologna.
    Ms. Rennick was both right and wrong in her ideas. Surely, the adminstration of an age based test to someone who functions far below that is akin to punishng a three foot child for failing to be the expected four feet, six inches. Should one measure for growth from the 4’6″ height onward, the results will be non existsent but a look ar the 3 fooot area might be different. Why deny proper assessment? Politics and political will. As even the attorney in the above article notes, there are superb tests which target specific populations. These tests go by the wayside and so wrongly so. Their useful information is so preferable to a finding that a 3 foot child is not 4 foot six. Florida State Board of Ed fails to see a problem but that would be their problem.I suggest an equal problem of the FSBOE would be the allowance of disingenuous information, as if parents have no recourse and their ESE child is floating around without any safeguards or accountability. What could be further from the truth?? An ESE student in Florida comes with about 20 pages of procedural safeguards and a legal document called an IEP which is to be written specific to the child and for observable and measurable growth. Parents can seek meetings about this dcumant and desire changes, seek testing, disagree with the IEP, challenge it, enter mediation about it , and file a formal complaint to the state about it. My successful formal systemic complaint to the state on behalf of about 7500 students cost me about 27 dollars. Those with a choice to use due process rights can do so. My challenge to an EP was mediated at no cost to me. Where was the insistence on accuracy of information? Why didn’t someone interject these pieces of parent power? Parents are provided updates every 4 and a half
    weeks or at the interval agreed to on the IEP. I am not up on who mandates reprt card content but as to Marc Halpert.s complaint about report cards, my children’s report cards used to contain dgrees of being on grade level or lack thereof in elementary school. The class titles give that information or the registration descroption sheet can inform parents as to the leel of coursses beyond that. The administration of a mismatched test does little but continues the bologna of NCLB.

    Missing from the superficial conversation of this topic is the result. Teaching to the test will diminish student learning profiles. IEPs will mmmore closely approximate test conent and not individual need. It is an affront to many ESE students.who would be better nmatched to a suitable test. I read only one article about the attempt to included ESE students in a VAM model and the conclusion was it was not possible to do so fairly. I find this concerning when accoynatbility systems should be fair, another factor ovelooked in Florida,,where only F schools serev high proporions of children of poverty.

    Ms. Rennick lost her points gained when she applied her concern only to McKay students.YIKES, what a bias showing a desire for only students in a specific voucher program. Giant OOPS!

    I am especially interested in hearing back from the attorney and becoming aware of the rules for inclusion/exclusion of the FCAT/FAAR. Why do I find it an IEP team decision which allows for flexibility and power empowerment? What don’t I know?

  3. I await the opportunity to see a reply from Ms. Hertog. Is that in the works?

    • Dear Diane:

      Thanks so much for your comment. As an advocate for parents like you – parents of students with disabilities – I agree with much of what you’ve said and understand the great frustration many parents feel when dealing with the public school system.

      I’m also not sure I understand your question and would be happy to respond to an email or telephone call (both are available on my website http://www.MakingSchoolWork.com). If I understand your question – whether or not a student is excluded from the FCAT is largely decided by the IEP team – you are correct. There are some exceptions which are not typical and this is probably not the forum to discuss them.

      I think some of the misunderstanding may lie in the fact that Mr. Halpert referred to the exclusion of ESE students from the Florida school grading system until recently when the U.S. Dept of Ed made their inclusion a condition of receiving a waiver to the No Child Left Behind Act (“the ESEA waiver” which Mr. Halpert referred to in his reply above). In other words, that’s a different type of accountability than the one I discuss in my post above. My post above talks about the need for more accountability to parents by the private school who participate in the Florida McKay Scholarship for Student’s with Disabilities – a special needs voucher program.

      The bottom line is that you’re right – there’s a need for more accountability to parents (and ultimately to kids) in both the FL public and private school systems.

      Allison Hertog

  4. I have just reviewed the argument both for and against assessments for students who are accessing the McKay Scholarship Program. As the Executive Director of a Private School program where the majority of our families use the McKay Scholarship I believe that a single measure or assessment for any child, LD or otherwise, should not be the sole determiner of a child’s progress, nor a schools’ effectiveness. As we all chime in on our beliefs, please review your position, your education, your background and your training. Does your occupation have a single event (annual test) where you are expected to peform on an assessment to retain your license, your certification or your livelihood, annually? (Once many professionals get their degree, they are entitled to log in professional development hours to retain their certification- which assumes that one actually attends the professional development and the coursework is meaningful and progress of participation and application of those courses is measured.)
    In reality-your day to day performance is largely measured by your clients satisfaction with your services. If you are not successful with your clients as a doctor, lawyer, sales agent, vendor, your client may choose another professional with which to do business.

    My professional believe is that, although testing may show a profile of one’s ability to generalize their skills to a single event, it does not demonstrate the effectiveness of a total program, or what a child may or may not have mastered in the duration of time in a classroom. I believe we need to have a portfolio of information to determine the effectiveness of a child’s overall success in the classroom.

    When I meet with parents and initiate the admissions process for our program, our parents are encouraged to ask questions, to do their homework on our program and others in the community before they decide to enroll. They should develop a clear understanding of what our program offers, how our curriculum strand works, what interventions are provided and how often they will be receiving updates on their child’s progress. A parent who uses the McKay funding takes on the responsibility of oversite of their child’s education. They are the ones who are making the decision about which school will more closely match their child’s learning needs and educational goals. When they access the funds, they are taking the responsibility to make informed decisions. Perhaps they need additional guidance on how to approach the process since they are in charge of where they want the funds directed.

    More later on this topic….

    I have limited time today, to continue this reflection, but I do want to point out an interesting trend, and through this out for debate. I would love to get Ms. Hertog’s opinion on this matter…

    In today’s public educational system we no longer subscribe to using diagnostic testing to determine a child’s learning issues when initiating or managing the Response to Intervention process. This assessment procedure is all but left to the parents to request from the school system, in writing, with a 60 day wait period. How is it plausible that we want to evaluate, rewared or punish the success of our schools based on a single event assessment (FCAT),but have eliminated the process of gathing critically important diagnostic information in the formation of annual goals for students whose learning needs are different from the “norm”? I find this alarming that any parent would be willing to let their child sit in a classroom with “trials” of intervention without having a clear understanding of what the child’s learning deficits truly are BEFORE the interventions begin. This, in my opinion, would be comparable to going to a doctor and asking for treatment without having detailed tests run prior to the treatment. Would any of us want to have a professional, such as a medical doctor, take a basic baseline for our blood pressure and provide treatment “trials” based on this collected data alone? I would hope not! But, we are allowing educators to gather data from the day to day performance of a child, and make lifelong academic decisions without having a clear academic road map to follow. Perhaps that is where we need to spend some energy, resources and time in the future debates of how to improve educational services to students who are not able to learn from traditional educational curriculum or settings. Developing what is an acceptable “portfolio” of information, including assessments from the classroom, work samples and yes diagnostic testing may be a more effective way to align appropriate interventions for students who are struggling.

    Just putting this out there for more debate!

  5. Dear Ms. Egli:

    Thank you for your response. I welcome this open debate, and I respect your opinions.

    Here are some thoughts. I am not at all advocating that the state mandate the administration of the FCAT in McKay private schools, though it may be the trend in other state voucher programs to do so. I believe simply that private schools should choose the standardized test to administer to their students based on the characteristics of their student body or on individual student characteristics. I am also not advocating that such scores be used to “reward or punish” private schools.

    While it sounds like your school provides a plethora of assessment (standardized or not) information to parents, trust me when I tell you that not all McKay schools do so. Unfortunately, I find that many parents come to me after enrollment in McKay schools for some period of time (months or years) with the complaint that they have no idea whether or not their child has learned anything or substance, anything to prepare him or her for what lies ahead.

    I disagree that once a parent chooses McKay, they “take responsibility to oversee their child’s education.” I believe that once a private school chooses to accept public money, they take on the responsibility of oversite [sic] to their child’s education. In addition, I disagree with your statement that public schools “no longer subscribe to using diagnostic testing to determine a child’s learning issues when initiating or managing the Response to Intervention process.” First, psycho-educational evaluations are not the same type of testing I discuss in my post. I discuss standardized testing for purposes of accountability to parents. Second, under the IDEA it is not “left to the parents” to request evaluations from the school system. The “child find” mandate under the IDEA is still alive and well; public schools are required to identify students who may be disabled and in need of special education. Third, Response to Intervention is primarily an option (alternative to psycho-ed testing) for students who may be learning disabled, not the vast universe of disabled students – all who are eligible to use the McKay Scholarship.

    Again, I’d truly welcome a continued discussion. I think we agree on more than we disagree. Though your school – and many others in the McKay program – may be exemplary, not all schools are, and parents need to know if their child’s school is not educating them according to at least minimal standards. Many parents – particularly those who were educated in other countries or who grew up with a sub-standard education themselves – need more data to make informed decisions than some McKay schools are providing.

    Allison Hertog

  6. I am so pleased to hear from Ms. Hertog. I must differentiate myself from a parent who has a child with disabilities as I am a parent of children who are gifted and deemed successes for having stagnated. Many kids like mine have been asked to takes tests which they may have been able to pass six months to four years earlier. When FCAT scores come out, these scores are counted as cause for celebration and bonus money earners. Should one clap for a result that shows an Oympic swimmer can put his or her head in water? This issue remains despite much prior notice at FLDOE.
    I twice filed formal complaints to the state victoriously, once on behalf of my child, and the nextt time a systemic one on behalf of 7500 students. I created data as a non statistician which circulated through Tallahassee and placed me on a state advisory committee. I must differentiate myself from a parent who finds the A+ system worthwhile. Perhaps if I were a politician, realtor, or Chamber of Commerce person, I would see a value to it which aids my financial situation, but that I am not. I find the A+ Plan to be a disaster and have data which interferes with the cheery boasts of politicians. The accountability sytem is supposed to be about students and learning, not business.
    Accountability systems should be relaible, valid, and fair. Florida’s does not meet the test, most simply demonstrated by the FCAT Writing fiasco. First point of concern: Why would a state choose to compare two tests unde varying conditions as comparable? What led to that careless decision and how many po\eople allowed that to happen? I would have stopped it and I am noone. So they reaped what they sowed and woke sleeping folks up to the warped world of politics being called accountability.Why place these children into the role of pawn as political wills battle, some wishing to mine profits from the public schools while others trying to keep public education alive.
    I deally, parents would rise to the occasion of advocacy, but that does not happen. Throwing ESE students who function nowhere near their age based placement is a mismatch of test to learner and certainly can be used to promote political wishes., Giving politicians the rein to determine education accountability is a horrid move.
    A great IEP or EP paired with a parent who knows his or her power is accountability perfected. The appropriate use of tests is good but not legislated in Florida.Since ESE students are considered Adhering to the intent of ESE law and the IEP, with all its legal ramifications, is paramount. As we watch the weakening of the IEP to a Common Core playbook rather than a direct plan connected to children’s learning profiles and identified needs, we lose sight of the school’s purpose and obligations to the student.Is that the intended outcome?
    If inclusion into the flawed A+ Plan is to be believed to be an accountability measure by those lacking the awareness to dissent. will that be used to end IEPs and ESE rights? It is a conversation being held quietly..the end of special education…a money saver at the expense of parental powers. This gets called reform as if it is an improvement. It is a weakening of support for students with unique needs. It is a cushion to deter lawsuits by taking away rights. I fear this end of special education is the underlying motive for the goofy perception that placing ESE kids under the A+ Plan more strongly will be a good thing.
    Do you have the same fears, Ms Hertog?