Nation’s Report Card Highlights Achievement Gap Between Student Groups in Wisconsin Schools

by Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

Wisconsin’s scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests are in, and while the results paint an optimistic picture for the state at face value, a persistent achievement gap and stagnant reading scores are less encouraging. The data suggests that the Badger State has difficulty educating its minority students, particularly when it comes to literacy.

The achievement gap, something that has been a lingering program for Wisconsin in measurements ranging from test scores to graduation rates, proved to be a significant issue in 2011. The state’s white students outscored their African-American, Hispanic, and Asian-American counterparts in reading and mathematics in the latest version of the nation’s report card.

In every subject, this gap was at least 30 points between white and African-American students.  A 39-point disparity was the largest amongst the four tests, which gauge students at grades four and eight. The test scores, which are presented below, are out of 500. The accompanying percentages show how many students in each group demonstrated a basic – and then proficient – mastery of educational concepts.

These results also highlight the state’s growing achievement gap between white and Hispanic students. While the state holds true with the national average for these pupils in mathematics, there is a large gap between the Badger State and the rest of the country when it comes to reading. Much of this is due to a recent regression in reading scores amongst the state’s Hispanic student population. Below are the national averages for all four groups.

Wisconsin’s minority students trail the American average in nearly every category. Only eighth-grade math amongst Hispanic students bucks that trend. Conversely, scores for white students, particularly in mathematics, are either similar to or above the national average. This statistic, combined with the state’s large population of white students (approximately 75 percent of the students taking each test are identified as white) has helped mask the state’s deficiencies when it comes to educating a diverse student body.

The chart above shows the state’s national ranks when it comes to the performance gap between student groups. Wisconsin’s disparity between African-American and White students is one of the highest in the country, coming in behind only the District of Columbia in eighth-grade metrics. Though Wisconsin’s marks improve in a national comparison between White and Hispanic pupils, they still boast an above-average gap between student performance between the two groups.

Though the state’s results have improved slightly over the past two decades, there has been little in the way of significant improvement in reducing the achievement gap. Reading scores in the state have seen an increase in the difference between white and minority students since 1992, particularly in fourth grade. Only eighth-grade reading scores for African-American students narrowed this gap, dropping from a 35-point difference to 32 points.

There were steadier gains in mathematics. However, these improvements were not enough to count as significantly different than Wisconsin’s achievement gap in 1992.

Over the past two decades, Wisconsin has made some progress in closing the achievement gap on the nation’s report card. However, the disparity that exists is still greater than the national average nearly across the board. The reason for this is because the Badger State is falling behind national trends for growth on NAEP testing over the past two decades. Here are Wisconsin’s average scores by the state’s three major student ethnicity groups:

While subjects like fourth grade math have growth significantly over the years, the state’s stagnant progress in reading is disappointing. Wisconsin’s inability to improve the reading skills of its Hispanic students, in particular, is a significant failure. This disparate growth is the driving force behind the state’s continual problems with student achievement. Now, let’s look at the national trends:

Wisconsin’s growth over the past two decades trails the national average in every category and across every race. As a result, the state’s standing as an above-average leader when it comes to NAEP results continues to fade with each iteration of the test. Unfortunately, the state cannot compete with even the modest reading gains that have occurred across America over this span.

The results also suggest that the state’s Hispanic students are having difficulty in keeping up with Wisconsin’s reading standards. This may place an additional emphasis on the implementation of the upcoming Read to Lead program, which enhances literacy standards in early childhood education. This program was based on Florida’s literacy model, which was geared in part to help a growing Hispanic student population read at a higher level. If Read to Lead can produce similar returns as the model on which it was based, this will help reverse the trend of falling reading scores for Wisconsin’s Hispanic pupils.

These NAEP data show that Wisconsin is still performing above the national standard. However, they also present a stark reality – that the Badger State won’t be able to stay above that mark if these current trends continue. While improvements have been made, they haven’t been enough. This national report suggests that the state can’t rest on its laurels and still has a long way to go in order to be one of America’s top public education systems.

Increasing achievement gaps in reading, particularly in the fourth grade, aren’t helping that cause. While NAEP data only paint a limited picture of a child’s educational experience, they also suggest that the quality of learning has decreased at this vital age. While it would be easy to gloss these numbers over in favor of a sunnier summary of Wisconsin’s above-average status, a little digging suggests that children across the state are being left behind when it comes to literacy.