Milwaukee Public Schools Rate Amongst Worst U.S. Urban Districts When it Comes to Reading

Some Progress Made on Closing Achievement Gap

By Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

The U.S. Department of Education released the urban results from the 2011 Nation’s Report Card Wednesday morning.  In both reading and mathematics, Milwaukee continues to trail the U.S. large city average.

The National Center for Education Statistics unveiled data collected from public schools in 21 of the country’s biggest urban areas. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is also referred to as the Nation’s Report Card. It aggregates data from every state and 21 designated large urban school districts to gauge how America’s students are performing across the country.

We covered Wisconsin’s lack of improvement on this year’s iteration of the statewide assessment here. Unfortunately, some disappointing trends have manifested themselves in the Badger State’s largest city as well.

In a two-year span where the average scores in America’s largest cities increased across the board, Milwaukee was left behind. The city posted improvements in just one category – eighth grade mathematics. Public school students in Milwaukee scored worse in 2011 than they did in 2009 in reading at both fourth and eighth grade.

This fell out of line with Wisconsin’s statewide averages. While Milwaukee’s fourth-grade reading scores dropped from 196 to 195, the state pushed their average from 220 to 221 in the same span. In eighth grade, Milwaukee regressed by three points to a 238 on NAEP testing while the rest of the Badger state improved its score by one point, rising to 267.

Milwaukee’s math scores were more encouraging, though they still trailed national trends for large cities. The city’s eighth grade math scores rose by three points (from 251 to 254) while its fourth grade scores rose marginally despite rounding to the same 220 figure that was recorded in 2009.

The disparity between students hailing from low and high-income backgrounds in 2011 is alarming. High-income students improved their fourth-grade reading scores from 216 to 224 in the two-year span. Conversely, low-income students held steady at 190 in both years. In eighth grade, the richer group posted a score of 255. Their lower-income counterparts fell from a grade of 237 to 234 in the same time frame. Similar disparities followed amongst the city’s reading scores.

One positive trend to note that eighth-grade math scores rose amongst both designated groups of students.

These results showcase the mounting problems with literacy in Wisconsin. At every selected percentile of student scores – from the lowest performing students to the highest – Milwaukee rates in the bottom five of all cities in the nation when it comes to reading. These scores put the district alongside places like Washington D.C., Cleveland, Detroit, and Fresno when it comes to literacy skills amongst public school students.

Milwaukee’s math scores are slightly better, but fail to crack the top 10 across the NAEP data’s selected percentiles. This places the city behind districts like Chicago, Baltimore, and Houston in almost every measure.

These NAEP data also showed that a significant achievement gap between races continues to exist in Milwaukee, but it is narrowing in some cases. For example, white students scored 24 points higher, on average, than their African-American counterparts when it came to eighth grade reading. However, this was an improvement over 2009’s results, which showed a 31-point gap. This 24 point disparity was tied for third-lowest amongst the 19 districts with recorded information.

While there are some positives that can be gleaned from the data, it’s hard not to view this latest release of nationwide data as a disappointing result for Milwaukee’s public schools. The city has regressed when it comes to teaching literacy skills and falls behind the U.S. average for large cities in all categories. In a city with lofty goals for the future, being grouped with places like Cleveland, Detroit, and Washington D.C. is not an encouraging prospect.

These data will place even more importance on how things are run in the state’s most scrutinized district. These NAEP scores show just how much work programs like Read to Lead and school accountability measures will have to do in order to just meet the national average for big city school districts.

The Nation’s Report Card offers a glimpse of how bad things are in Brew City. Now, it will take countless hours of hard work, innovation, and dedication to turn around some of the country’s worst urban public schools.

  • What MacIver fails to disclose in the report is that MPS has over 80% students from low income families. Studies clearly show that having more than 50% of the student population come from low income families is a huge detriment to the success of the schools. There is a cultural/peer component to the equation that cannot be ignored as MacIver has done. This non-disclosure seems to have facilitated the incorrect impression that more money has made the kids dumber.

    One of the Major reasons why all the the poorly performing schools in the report have large low-income populations is due to how we have decided to invest in our cities and suburbs. Poorer families have a hard time moving out of Milwaukee and buying into the suburbs that are being built and fortified with new infrastructure, while Milwaukee proper is neglected. That means the concentration of low income families increases, and the problem at the schools gets worse.

    The problem of poor performance in MPS will only be solved if Regional Officials recognize this demographic problem and focus effort into promoting development opportunities in Milwaukee proper, and end the practice of siphoning infrastructure investment from the people of Milwaukee and into the suburbs via the disproportionate suburban representation in SEWRPC.

    Projects like the Milwaukee streetcar are a prime example of how the conservative loathing of transit (and the blind funding of highways) is undermining School Districts like MPS. It is time to recognize the impacts of our built environment are far greater than conservatives have been willing to admit thus far…

  • Well, the report shows the difference between low income and high income students. If you put those numbers up against the city\’s average, it becomes pretty apparent that the low-income students make up the bulk of MIlwaukee\’s population. I don\’t think it was ignored at all.

  • While the report shows there are low-income students, it neglects to explain the educational problems that exist as a result of the concentration of low income students. This leaves many readers (as I witnessed on MacIver\’s FaceBook Page) to wrongly assume that the problem is primarily one of poor teachers. As I highlighted before, the drivers of demographic changes are playing the dominant role here and need to be explored.

  • Mark Michael

    No mention is made about the 7,000 students in charter schools or the (roughly) 25,000 students using vouchers to attend private schools. I assume those are not included in the above statistics? What were the test scores of the charter students and the voucher students? Hmm. This is NAEP testing, which probably doesn\’t apply to private schools, I guess.

    This doesn\’t help the argument that the competition from charters and vouchers will spur the traditional public schools to perform better. I tend to believe that competition works – since I don\’t think Adam Smith, et al theories have been discredited for K-12 schooling! But lots of people like to think that, since it allows them to focus exclusively on the public schools.