The Failure that is the WKCE

Wisconsin School Children Wasting Their Time on Meaningless Test

For one full month in October and November, Wisconsin’s public schools will shed their daily agendas to take a test that not even State Superintendent Tony Evers thinks is relevant anymore. That’s right, it’s time for the WKCE again.

The Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination (WKCE) has become the bane of state standardized testing in recent years. The assessment has been a fixture in public schools since 2003 when it became part of key criteria that determines or not if students can pass from 4th to 5th or 8th to 9th grade. Working in connection with the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the test was meant to provide benchmarks for student progress and evaluations for both pupils and teachers. Sadly, the WKCE fails to accurately judge student progress at both a student and school level.

Its data is outdated and standards so low that it is tough to glean much useful information from the results. In turn, weeks of classroom time are taken away from teachers’ curricula and devoted to a program that shows Wisconsinites comparatively little when it comes to achievement in public schools. While the test plays a key role in determining the fates of students and schools, it does so ineffectively and with low standards.

Criticism of the test has become almost as regular as its month-long application schedule each fall. It seems as though there has been a major effort to either reform or replace the WKCE every year since 2005 and possibly earlier. Concerns ranging from the difficulty and standards of the test to the length of time that it takes to relay results to parents have become common complaints. Some experts feel that the state fails to do enough with the test to justify its existence. Others are simply concerned with the way that it hijacks teaching schedules and shapes time spent in the classroom early in the year. At this point, it is rare to find Wisconsinites at any level who support the increasingly inadequate test.

One of the biggest detractors for the WKCE has come from a national voice. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute recently released a study showcasing just how ornamental many of the objectives for passing this test are. Several flaws lead to artificial grades that fail to truly convey the actual value of education in Wisconsin’s classrooms.

The Fordham Institute expounded on this lack of effectiveness in their 2009 study The Accountability Illusion. The report examined educational standards across the country and how highly the bar was set in each state in order for schools to be labeled as making adequate yearly progress (AYP) under guidelines set by NCLB. AYP is determined differently from state to state, allowing for flexibility based on local legislation, administrative presence, and student populations. As a result, what is labeled as progress in a California school could differ greatly from a school’s progress in Rhode Island.

What The Accountability Illusion showed is that Wisconsin’s definition of progress lags behind every other state. Part of that is due to the WCKE and its failure to properly measure student progress in the classroom. Thanks to these shortcomings, schools that would have been classified as failing in other states slide by with passing grades in Wisconsin more than in any other state.

Graphic courtesy: Thomas B. Fordham Institute
There are two major reasons for this. The first is that the state counts failing students as earning partial credit. In short, this allows students that haven’t shown proficiency to still count towards a school’s overall score; this practice buoys test scores and allows schools with a generally unacceptable number of failing students to appear to be much better than it actually is. The second cause is an inflated standard for how many students make up a subgroup within a school.

According to No Child Left Behind, if a single subgroup of students (for example, students with disabilities, low-income students, minority students, etc) fails, they bring down the entire school with it. This prevents the school from making AYP. Traditionally, these subgroups tend to have lower test scores than their classmates. However, Wisconsin’s guidelines only require a subgroup to be reported if it contains 40 or more students. In fact, amongst students with disabilities – traditionally the lowest-testing subgroup – this threshold for recognition is 50 students.

The average K-6 elementary school in Wisconsin has approximately 177 students in attendance. The odds that over 50 students in a given school have disabilities are understandably low. The odds that over 40 students will be defined as low-income, minority, or have limited English-speaking proficiency (keep in mind that these subgroups are separate entities from each other) are also similarly low, especially outside of major urban centers like Milwaukee and Madison.

As a result, these challenging students are intentionally swept into the majority where the rest of the student body can prop up their test scores and provide a false sense of achievement. When it comes to measuring school growth, the Fordham Institute showed that the WCKE is often a system of smoke and mirrors.

These relatively low standards aren’t the only thing that is keeping the test from being an effective gauge of Wisconsin’s education. The WKCE’s timing, slated for barely two months after students return from the summer break, puts their new teachers at a disadvantage when it comes to educating new students. The exam also fails to test high school students beyond the fall of their sophomore years, creating a substantial gap in information amongst secondary school pupils. Additionally, the exam fails to definitively link student results to their teachers. These problems not only leave students in the dark, but also create a problem when it comes to analyzing the effectiveness of their teachers.

At this point, the outdated status of the state’s primary standardized test is well recognized. Superintendent Evers has already gone on record multiple times extolling the need of a new testing format.

“Replacing the WKCE and transforming our assessment systems is a major part of preparing students to become college and career ready,” said Evers at his 2010 State of Education address. North Lake Superintendent Pete Hirt even went as far to call the antiquated test “a necessary evil” in 2009. Other administrators across the state praised the switch as well, calling reform “a step in the right direction” and “a vital move” in recent interviews with Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Erin Lamb.

This reboot would hold students and schools to a higher standard, but also tie student results to teachers and sync with national Common Core of Data Standards to create a level playing field when comparing states. Not only would parents and observers be able to see how certain schools, teachers, and students are performing, they would be able to make comparisons across schools, districts, and even states.

Ditching the WKCE is widely recognized as the right move, but the timeline for a new testing mechanism will be implemented is still up in the air. Estimates put the arrival at a new system between two and three years while various issues are sorted out. Meanwhile, today students and teachers begin a month-long period of wasted days and eschewed lessons to make room for a test that will glean little useful information for teachers, parents, and Wisconsinites across the state.

The WKCE is an outdated test that fails to serve students or teachers. By forcing schools to continue to use the WKCE well after it was determined to be an inadequate test, Wisconsin is dooming our children, teachers, and schools to a system where failure doesn’t always mean failure, and mediocrity means progress.

By Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Reform Policy Analyst