Despite Soft Standards, Over 10 Percent of Wisconsin Schools Fail to Meet Federal Yearly Progress Measures

By Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

The Fordham Institute recently published a study [LINK] that showed that Wisconsin’s schools have some of the easiest regulations to pass federal adequate yearly process (AYP) standards in America. Even with this soft curve, the state’s institutions are still failing at an alarming rate.

In a state where classroom standards are some of the lowest in the country, Wisconsin still saw 228 schools fail to meet AYP in the 2010-2011 school year. The bulk of these schools (94 in all) are located in Milwaukee, but the theme of failure was evident statewide.

Entire districts in Milwaukee, Madison, Kenosha, Green Bay, Racine, and Beaver Dam failed to make AYP. Schools in all of Wisconsin’s major cities had multiple institutions crop up on the list of underachieving schools. Even towns like Verona, Oconomowoc, and Fond du Lac found their names on the undistinguished list.

The state’s non-district charter schools were at risk as well. Five schools failed to make AYP in 2010-2011, up from two in 2009-2010.

The state’s number shows a significant increase from past years. In 2008-2009, 145 Wisconsin schools did not make AYP – a failure rate of 6.7 percent. In 2009-2010, this number dropped to 140 – or about 6.5 percent. This year’s rate was approximately four percent higher, clocking in at around 10.6 percent.

Part of this increasing rate can be explained by the raising of Federal standards. The national reading and math standards rose by an average of eight percent in 2010-2011 as part of the country’s goal to create classrooms where 100 percent of students are proficient in these core concepts. For a school to pass, at least 80.5 percent of its students have to grade as “proficient” or better in reading. In math, this figure is just 68.5 percent.

Still, this increase in failing schools is especially alarming given the state’s track record when it comes to Race to the Top’s AYP standards.

A 2009 study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute ranked 28 states by strength of the their school grading guidelines. The authors (John CroninMichael DahlinYun Xiang, and Donna McCahon) did this by using a diverse sample of 36 elementary and middle schools from across the country and pairing them with state-by-state AYP regulations. States that saw fewer schools achieve AYP were ones with stricter, more accountable standards.

In Wisconsin, 24 of these sample schools made AYP in some form. Another 17 qualified across all AYP targets. It was the most of any state researched in the study.

The implication here is simple; Wisconsin’s standards for making adequate yearly progress are exceedingly low. This is thanks in part to low proficiency standards for students and schools, as well as a high threshold for leniency in these failing institutions. As a result, it was easier for schools to make AYP than in any other state in the Fordham study.

Many of the state’s problem schools are repeat offenders. In Milwaukee, only 14 of 78 identified failing institutions from 2009 were able to meet AYP standards for 2010. Over this same period, 30 more schools were added to the list, giving the city 94 schools in all. Four of the state’s five largest school districts – Milwaukee, Madison, Racine, and Green Bay – were also holdovers from last year’s index.

The results don’t paint a rosy picture for the state of education in Wisconsin. While rising national standards have played a role in the increase of failing schools, it is tough to ignore the fact that over 10 percent of schools are failing to make adequate progress despite some of the most lenient state regulations in the country. In fact, this report likely understates how poorly many of Wisconsin’s schools are actually performing in comparison to the rest of the country.

Whether or not the state is in the midst of a national downward trend has yet to be seen. Wisconsin is one of the first states in the country to release their AYP data each year, so its place amongst the rest of America isn’t yet known. Though higher standards suggest that most states will struggle to keep up, it’s tough to be encouraged by the Badger State’s growing list of disappointing schools. At least one in 10 public schools in the state are failing to meet national standards – and those are terrible odds for Wisconsin’s students.