kitchen table math, the sequel: private school testing & enrollment

Monday, January 7, 2008

private school testing & enrollment

For those of you who haven't looked into private schools, the ISEE test, along with the SSAT, seem to be the two standardized tests all the kids take. Students applying to Catholic high schools take the TACHS. (I don't know anything beyond this, and would certainly appreciate hearing from anyone who does.)

I'd been wondering how many kids take the ISEE each year, so this morning I called the office.

The woman who answered said that approximately 42,000 students take the ISEE each year. The test covers grades 5-12 and the 42,000 figure includes all students who take it in all grades. I assume that the largest number is probably 6th graders, but I don't know.

The SAT is taken by around 1.4 million high school seniors each year.

private school enrollment

Last spring Ed asked a visiting admissions officer from Dartmouth what percentage of the student body attended private schools.

His answer was 30%.

NCES gives the following figures for private school enrollment across the country:

Among the 28,384 private schools in existence in 2003–04 there was considerable diversity as to orientation and affiliation. Of the three primary types of private schools—Catholic, other religious, and nonsectarian—other religious schools were the most numerous, followed by Catholic schools, and then nonsectarian schools, representing 48, 28, and 24 percent, respectively, of all private schools.


An estimated total of 5,122,772 students were enrolled in the nation’s private schools in the fall of 2003, a decrease of 218,741 from the estimated total of 5,341,513 students enrolled in the fall of 2001.

Private school students represented approximately 10 percent of the total public and private elementary and secondary enrollment in the United States in 2003–04.

Assuming I've done my math right, these are the figures I come up with for 2007 (from CAPE):

  • total number of U.S. students: 55,863,247
  • total number of U.S. students enrolled in private school: 6,536,000 - 11.7% of all US students
  • total number of U.S. students enrolled in Catholic Schools: 3,019,632 - 5% of all US students (46.2% of all private school students)
  • total number of U.S. students enrolled in nonsectarian schools: 1,173,480 - 2% of all US students (18% of all private school students)

Loveless report on private school conundrum (pdf file)
The second section’s study of public and private school enrollment is precipitated by another oxymoron. Public opinion polls consistently show that the public considers private schools superior to public schools. Yet private school enrollment peaked around 1960 and has declined since then. People express a belief in public opinion surveys that they apparently contradict when selecting schools. What is going on?


Most people assume that private schools are better than public schools. More than half of the respondents to a 2004 Kappan Poll said they would send their children to a private school if vouchers were available covering the full tuition. This section of the Brown Center Report is about two trends in private school enrollment that do not make sense in light of the public’s perception of private school superiority. The first is that private schools’ share of students peaked in 1959 and has subsequently declined. If private schools are so good and public schools so bad, why have private schools lost market share to public schools over the past few decades? And how could this happen at the same time that several well-crafted, well-publicized studies by eminent social scientists documented the virtues of private schooling? The second mystery has to do with the grade levels at which private schools lose students—in the transition to high school. Why are parents leaving private schools for public schools at precisely the time in a student’s career when academic achievement means so much for college admission and later prospects in life?

The Private School Advantage

In 1982, James Coleman published studies of private and public schools that rocked the foundation of the public school establishment. One of the most prominent social scientists of his era, Coleman presented data from “High School and Beyond,” a massive national study of students who were tenth graders in 1980 and in twelfth grade two years later. The headline finding was simple: private schools are better than public schools. Students attending private high schools, in particular Catholic schools, gained about one grade level more on achievement tests than students attending public schools. Critics charged that Coleman had not taken into account the self selection of private school students—that is, that kids in private schools may be better students initially or have parents more committed to education than the typical student. After all, parents go to a lot of trouble to send their kids to private schools, most notably, by paying private school tuition and supplying their own transportation despite having already paid taxes to fund public schooling. Coleman retorted that he had statistically controlled for selection bias so as to make a legitimate comparison.

Later studies also praised private schools. Bryk, Lee, and Holland found that Catholic schools not only produce higher achievement scores, but they also serve “the common good” by boosting the education of poor and minority children. Building on Coleman’s work, Bryk, Lee, and Holland estimated that minority students in Catholic high schools learn twice as much mathematics as their public school counterparts


These explanations rely on theories that depict parents as making rational choices when deciding where to send children to school. Favoring schools with a strong mission, seeking a rigorous curriculum that prepares students for college, rewarding quality when selecting from a market of schools—all of these phenomena hinge on what social scientists call “rational actors”—parents deciding to send their kids to private schools for clear, understandable reasons. Such behavior makes private-public enrollment trends mysterious, since they do not look rational if private schools offer a superior education.


The private school share peaked at 9.3 percent in 1960. Since then, it eased to 7.7 percent in 2000 (and 8.0 percent in 2004, not shown in the table). The public school share of 14- to 17-year old enrollment grew from 74.1 percent in 1960 to 83.5 percent in 2000. So this is interesting. At the same time distinguished scholars published study after study documenting the advantages of private over public schooling—with an emphasis on high school— parents were increasingly more likely to enroll their 14- to 17-year-old children in public schools, not private schools. The ratio of enrollments favoring public schools grew from about 8 to 1 in 1960 to more than 10 to 1 in 2004. High school enrollment is indeed the culprit in the loss of market share.


The famous studies documenting a private school advantage relied almost exclusively on high school test scores, and yet high schools are where private sector enrollment declines the most. Enrollment patterns in recent years pinpoint that the drop off is occurring at the beginning of high school.


Why are private schools losing high school students to public schools? Part of the answer is found in the difficulties faced by Catholic schools.


Factors other than religion also play a role. The fact that high school is the time when parents shift from preferring private to public schooling suggests something also may have changed related to child rearing. What has probably changed—and this point is admittedly speculative—are attitudes toward the schooling of teenagers. Parents offer their children more choices today and more say in schooling. Once children enter adolescence, they may prefer to go to school where kids in their own neighborhood go, not to a school across town. Moreover, parents want schools to offer more than academic learning. Social skills and “well-roundedness” are also very important. In a 1996 Gallup Poll, parents were asked to pick between the following: their oldest child being a straight-A student with only a few friends and extracurricular activities or a C student with a lot of friends and activities. By a two to one margin, they picked the busy, socially active C student. Perhaps all of the studies documenting higher test scores in private schools are identifying an attribute that parents find attractive but not decisive in selecting schools.

Council for American Private Education

"F" for Failure
The NCES Private-Public Study


Liz Ditz said...

All these studies compare apples and oranges. To illustrate what I mean, I wrote this blog post.

Jim said...

I believe a large portion of the decline since 1960 of enrollment in private schools particularly Catholic Schools can be attributed to a decline in both priests and nuns. As the number of Clergy available to teach has declined the number of schools implementing and increasing tuition has increased. (If the church is paying the clergy's salary then your overhead is low if you have to pay your teacher's market rates then your overhead is high.) This is simple economics as the price increases demand decreases. When I was a student in the 70's the price for my catholic school went from free to $300. My daughter's tuition at the same school in kindergarten is $3800 which is subsidized by the church and supplemented by an endowment. The real cost to educate a child at the school is closer to $6,000.00 I know this because I am on the finance committee. Tuition will go up next year I can guarantee it mostly due to inflation. The standardized test taken by the students is the Terra Nova.

Catherine Johnson said...

I'm sure that's true (decline in number of priests and nuns).

I'm about to start sending money to Catholic schools just to keep them going.