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Milwaukee Public Schools Earn a D- on Wisconsin's New Report Cards

Comments | Posted in News | By Sean Lansing | Posted November 12, 2012 9:40 AM

MacIver News Service | November 12, 2012

High Schools, Middle Schools "Fail to Meet Expectations" On Average; Elementary Schools "Meet Few Expectations."

[Madison, Wisc...] When the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) unveiled their new public school report cards last month, the average Wisconsin school graded out toward the lesser end of the bell curve. A closer look at Wisconsin's largest school district shows that Milwaukee's Public Schools (MPS) are performing well below even modest standards.

Only 79 of 138 graded K-12 MPS institutions earned grades higher than "Fails to Meet Expectations" - the equivalent of an "F". The average score for MPS schools was a 54.38 out of 100. The city's high schools were some of the worst performers in the district, averaging a score of just under 40 points for institutions that served students in grades nine through twelve.

The results get a little better when the city's non-instrumentality charter schools are factored into the grades. Milwaukee has 18 2R Charter institutions that are authorized independently from the district by institutions such as UW-Milwaukee and the City of Milwaukee. These schools showcased significantly higher average grades than their regular public school and even their district-authorized charter school counterparts. When these schools are factored into the city's results, Milwaukee's overall grades rose slightly.

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Schools were given overall grades based on their scores in four separate categories. Categories include student achievement (a base level of student knowledge), student growth (a measurement of annual student progress), closing gaps (how different student groups are performing), and on-track and postsecondary readiness (a measure of how prepared students are for the next step in their education). Additional deductions could be made on a school-by-school basis related to issues such as dropout rates, absenteeism and test participation.

These grades fell into five categories, which are shown below. These categories were not assigned letter grades by the state, but instead deal with expectations. However, A-F grades can be applied to each category, making them easier to reference and understand.

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No public school in Milwaukee scored high enough to merit a "Significantly Exceeds Expectations" mark, which would be the equivalent of an "A" in a five-tiered letter grading system. Only six schools - two of them 2R charters and one MPS charter - earned marks that put them in the second, "Exceeds Expectations" category.

The city's schools scored mostly in the "D" range and lower thanks to lagging scores in student achievement. The state's 20 lowest overall scores came from MPS, and 43 of Wisconsin's worst 50 grades were located in the state's largest school district. As a result, these scores lagged considerably behind the Wisconsin state averages.

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One of the bright spots in Milwaukee came from its charter schools. These institutions scored across a wide curve, but on average outperformed their regular public school counterparts in Milwaukee. This positive trend was especially seen in the city's non-MPS institutions. These 2R charters outperformed many regular schools within MPS as well as the city's district-authorized charter schools.

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While these two groups represent a small sample size - 25 MPS charters and 18 2R charters were included in DPI's report - they still show signs of improvement when compared to the rest of the MPS graded schools.

Their scores bring up another point that seems to be consistent across the state's grading system; that elementary schools typically outperform middle and high schools by a significant margin. As a whole, elementary schools (K-5) scored more than seven points higher than middle schools (6-8). This gap widened for high schools across Milwaukee, where elementary schools had an increased average of nearly 18 points. Schools with mixed groups of students, like K-8 schools and schools that educate students from 8th-12th grade, landed between middle and high schools in the state's grading system.

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This paints a dire picture for MPS high schools. The city's high school students, on average, attend schools that score fewer than 40 points out of a possible 100 in the state's new accountability system. That's more than 13 points from meeting any of the state's expectations for schools, according to the new grading system.

The city's 2R charter schools, which are not authorized by the district and counted separately from MPS in DPI's reporting, are not included in this chart.

Below are the statewide averages for public elementary, middle and high schools in Wisconsin:

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Another trend these report cards show are high disparities between student achievement and the other three categories in the metric - particularly in the On-Track and Postsecondary Readiness metric. That priority area pulls figures from several different areas to gauge how ready a student is to move on to the next level of education. In elementary and middle schools, this means using a school's attendance rate along with students' third-grade reading achievement scores from the Wisconsin Knowledge Concepts Examination (WKCE) or their eighth-grade math scores from the same test. In high school, this is a combination of graduation rate and ACT participation and performance.

The utilization of these measurements creates a metric that often records scores that are significantly higher than the rest of a school's grades. It may also create some confusion - for example, how can Milwaukee's average schools post a failing grade in student achievement but score highly when it comes to readiness for the next grade?

This is a problem that could regulate itself in the future. New Common Core standards will have a drastic effect on achievement scores thanks to a more rigorous test. Additionally, the adoption of an ACT testing suite to replace the WKCE in high schools should help regulate and stabilize readiness scores across Wisconsin's secondary schools in the future. While this trend of eyebrow-raising On-Track and Postsecondary Readiness scores was apparent in the first year of accountability based report cards, it may not present as much of a difference in years to come.

Another interesting observation from these report cards is the relative strength of the city's Montessori schools. There were five Montessori schools with grades for the 2011-2012 school year. Four of these schools were regular MPS schools while the fifth was a 2R charter. None of the five catered to students beyond grade eight.

These institutions had the highest average score amongst all school types in Milwaukee.

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Again, with only five schools - all serving primarily elementary grades - this is a very small sample size. Still, it is an encouraging display of improvement when compared to the citywide average.

Of course, not all schools had viable samples that would allow them to be graded. Some were missing elements like a measurement of growth or gaps between student groups. Others were missing entire entries due to their status as start-ups or other factors. As a result, only 138 of the district's 172 authorized schools were included in the overall grading.

Here are the top three and bottom three schools in Milwaukee at both the elementary and high school levels. These include 2R charters. Since there was only seven dedicated middle schools in Milwaukee and two of those did not have grades, these institutions did not merit their own breakout list.

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Charter schools are present on both lists, but not always in a positive way. The three lowest-scoring high schools in the city are all district-authorized charters. However, the highest-performing elementary school in Milwaukee belongs to the same group of schools.

The overall picture in Milwaukee is grim, but there are some bright spots. The average public school received a "D" grade from DPI for 2012. That figure only got worse when it focused on the city's high schools, which scored a paltry 39.89 out of 100 in the state's metric.

Still, the performance of Milwaukee's charter schools, along with some gems among the regular public schools, suggest that there are opportunities for parents to find strong institutions outside of private schools or the city's voucher program. The strongest performing schools in city limits, on average, were 2R charter schools authorized by either the City of Milwaukee or UW-Milwaukee. While their results still trailed behind the statewide average, these institutions were able to showcase progress in Wisconsin's most difficult district.

DPI's report cards aren't perfect, but they do allow parents and families to better understand their local schools by aggregating data that showcase performance. The first year of this program has presented a valuable snapshot of data, but the real value of these report cards will come over time when schools can be tracked and their growth can be measured. For now, we understand that things in Milwaukee are in dire need of help. Once this program progresses, we'll be able to better understand where gains are being made, and where to look in order to improve MPS in the future.