A Closer Look at Wisconsin’s Test Scores Reveals Troubling Trend

Hispanic Children in Wisconsin Regressing

by Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

When the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released their 2011 results, things seemed to be working out well for Wisconsin’s public schools. The state posted above average numbers in key subjects like reading and mathematics in fourth and eighth grade.

However, a deeper look into those numbers exposes some troubling trends. Namely, Wisconsin’s Hispanic students are regressing when it comes to reading in the state’s classrooms.

The state’s 2011 results held steady at 202 points for fourth-grade reading amongst Hispanic pupils. This was down from a score of 208 in 2007 and less than the state’s score of 209 in 1992, the first iteration of the test. In eighth grade, the average score dropped from 250 to 248. This is a decrease from 1998’s average of 256 – the first year the test was recorded for the group.

These results highlight a grim trend. Over the past two decades, reading achievement amongst the state’s Hispanic students has regressed. While national averages have seen a growth of 5.7 percent in fourth grade reading and 5.5 percent in eighth grade reading amongst Hispanic test takers, Wisconsin has posted losses. The state’s scores dropped by 3.4 percent and 2.8 percent in the two grades, respectively.

This disparity has helped drop Wisconsin’s performance below the national average. More importantly, it suggests that the state’s schools are struggling to educate a growing population of Latino students.

Steps are in place to combat this, but it’s unclear how effective they will be.

In order to raise the state’s reading proficiency as a whole, Wisconsin has developed a new program. This system, known as Read to Lead, united educators, researchers, legislators, and administrators from across the state to develop stronger reading standards. Read to Lead has its roots in a series of Florida reforms that have turned the Sunshine State around academically.

This Florida program included a literacy intensive system that dictated that if students couldn’t read proficiently by the end of third grade, they would held back. This plays to an old saying in education; by third grade, students are learning to read – after third grade, students are reading to learn.

This end of social promotion, along with stronger school accountability measures, expanded school choice options, and greater administrative transparency for parents, helped create significant improvements when it came to Florida’s NAEP scores.

How drastic were these improvements? Strong enough for Florida’s Hispanic students to outscore Wisconsin’s entire student body when it came to fourth-grade reading in 2009. In 2011, these students trailed the Badger State average by only one point but still performed above the American average. Over the past decade, Florida has seen rising graduation rates, better school grades, and more minority students passing AP exams.

Can Wisconsin duplicate Florida’s success? Read to Lead was built with that intention. Facing stagnant reading scores and a regression amongst Hispanic students, the state’s public educational system created a program to reverse these results. New policies include greater attention to reading development for teachers, a Kindergarten screening test for students so schools to spur early intervention, and syncing testing data with national Common Core of Data standards.

Wisconsin’s version of this initiative does not include the prohibition on social promotion. Children in Wisconsin will not have to prove that they can read proficiently to advance beyond third grade.

That stipulation removes much of the severity that helped drive Florida’s reform. This leaves the door open for children to matriculate to higher grades without proper reading skills. It creates opportunities for these pupils to fall behind further down the road. Will Read to Lead be successful in Wisconsin without retention as an added layer of accountability and preparation?

We’ll have to see when the plan is implemented.