Measuring Academic Success with Education Savings Accounts

How do we determine if a school is succeeding? Many will point to a combination of test scores, graduation rates, and student growth. Certainly, these are important factors—but by no means are they an exhaustive list. Parental satisfaction, too, must be a primary consideration for anyone evaluating a school’s effectiveness.

After all, parents have a variety of preferences that go beyond pure academics. Parents may want to emphasize certain values, vocational training, or music and the arts. For some, the most important measure of success is how safe their child feels in school.

School choice has seen rapid growth precisely because it has been successful at pleasing parents. Take education savings accounts (ESAs), for example. ESAs—flexible spending accounts that can be used for multiple educational services—are proven to satisfy parents in Arizona, home to nation’s first ESA program, per a survey from EdChoice.

Every parent surveyed was at least somewhat satisfied with their ESA, while 71 percent of parents described themselves as “very satisfied.” What’s more, half of the same parents reported some level of dissatisfaction with their public school in the preceding year.

In the study, parents explained why they decided to leave their public schools. “The school [my daughter] attended did not provide any occupational therapy services,” claimed one parent. “There were also issues with her [being] teased and ridiculed regarding her disability.”

Another parent whose child has multiple disabilities was disappointed that school officials “would only give him consultative therapies one time per month.”

Increased standardized test scores were not the top priority for these families. Improved educational and consultative therapies for their children’s disabilities were the priority—and in this case, may have been better accountability measures.

Critics of school choice frequently demand that alternative school models—be they private schools, charter schools, homeschools, or online education—demonstrate a threshold of academic growth to justify their continued existence (while, hypocritically, not holding traditional public schools to the same standard). 

Some iteration of the following refrain is common: “Standardized test scores at the local charter school are only marginally better than at the neighborhood public school. The charter school isn’t working!”

Granted, given that school choice programs rely on public funds, there is a fair argument that taxpayers deserve assurance that students are progressing academically. And there will always be an important place for testing.

However, standardized tests scores are not always an accurate indicator of student achievement, ignoring the totality of a student’s academic, social, and mental development. School success—and school accountability—is often more complex than a matter of test scores.

For many families, school choice is an outlet to satisfy parents and help children grow in ways that cannot always be measured on the PSSA.