The Bluegrass Institute is frequently asked about the performance of various non-public school students such as those going to private and parochial schools and those schooled at home. Unfortunately, that information is not directly available.
However, many years ago I realized that I could compute scores for the state’s non-public school graduates using scores and participation numbers for all students that the ACT, Inc. directly provides and the separate scores and participation numbers for public school students that currently come from the Kentucky Department of Education (and formerly were available from the Kentucky Office of Education Accountability).
So, I show the Kentucky non-public school graduates ACT data by year in Table 1.
Compare this to the public school only scores shown in Table 2.
As you look at these tables, please note there have been several changes in the ACT over the years that make it inaccurate to compare the scores across long periods of time.
One major change came in 2009. This was the first year that 100 percent of Kentucky’s public high school graduates took the ACT. Table 2 shows there was a major shift downward in the public school scores as many more weak students who never had planned to take the ACT suddenly were included in the public school mix. There is a white background break line on the tables to make this change in testing conditions for graduates in 2009 and later more evident.
A second change came in 2013 when the ACT for the first time averaged in scores from students who got more than the standard amount of time to test. Before 2013, such scores were not included in the overall state averages. There was some impact on the public school scores. However, non-public school scores in Table 1 don’t show any impacts, indicating not many non-public school students are using this option.
When you compare Table 1 to Table 2, you can see that the tested group in Kentucky’s non-public schools produce much higher ACT average scores in every subject area. For example, in ACT English the non-public school graduates in 2017 scored 4.7 points higher than the public school students did. This is a very large score difference on the ACT, which is only a 36-point maximum test. Score differences for the other ACT test subjects, while somewhat smaller, are still very large.
As you examine the tables, this strong difference in performance in favor of non-public schools has been present for a very long time in Kentucky, with one exceptional period starting around 1998. In that year there appears to have been a massive flight of students from the public schools in the state to the non-public system. That flight was accompanied by a dramatic drop in the non-public school graduates’ scores.
I have never seen any research on this interesting phenomenon, but 1998 was the year that the legislature threw out Kentucky’s first reform accountability system, the old KIRIS assessments. That action came about due to growing distrust regarding the obviously inflating KIRIS results. I suspect this dramatic event and the concern about public education performance behind it are related to the dramatic increase in Kentucky’s non-public school graduations in 1998.
By 1998, many parents were upset about the low performance of the public schools. For example, Table 2 shows the ACT Composite Score for public schools in Kentucky remained essentially flat, running either 19.9 or 20.0 from 1993 all the way to 2002. This flat performance could have been the trigger that motivated many parents to move their children. If so, the non-public school ACT score trends indicate those parents might have made the move to alternative schooling too late to help their children.
In any event, the rapid increase in non-public graduates in 1998 was associated with a notable decay in the non-public ACT averages as the non-public school graduate count soared by an astonishing 47 percent in just one year between 1997 and 1998.
Over time, the situation balanced out. For at least the past decade, the results for those non-public school graduates who take the ACT has been considerably better than the public school performance.
What we don’t know is what percentage of the non-public school graduates takes the ACT, though I suspect the non-public school participation rate is very high. Given the current, very large differences between non-public school and public school graduates’ ACT scores, even if some of the weakest non-public school students don’t take the ACT, it seems that Kentucky’s non-public schools do produce better results than the public school system.