Milwaukee Public Schools Rate Amongst Worst U.S. Urban Districts When it Comes to Reading

Some Progress Made on Closing Achievement Gap

By Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

The U.S. Department of Education released the urban results from the 2011 Nation’s Report Card Wednesday morning.  In both reading and mathematics, Milwaukee continues to trail the U.S. large city average.

The National Center for Education Statistics unveiled data collected from public schools in 21 of the country’s biggest urban areas. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is also referred to as the Nation’s Report Card. It aggregates data from every state and 21 designated large urban school districts to gauge how America’s students are performing across the country.

We covered Wisconsin’s lack of improvement on this year’s iteration of the statewide assessment here. Unfortunately, some disappointing trends have manifested themselves in the Badger State’s largest city as well.

In a two-year span where the average scores in America’s largest cities increased across the board, Milwaukee was left behind. The city posted improvements in just one category – eighth grade mathematics. Public school students in Milwaukee scored worse in 2011 than they did in 2009 in reading at both fourth and eighth grade.

This fell out of line with Wisconsin’s statewide averages. While Milwaukee’s fourth-grade reading scores dropped from 196 to 195, the state pushed their average from 220 to 221 in the same span. In eighth grade, Milwaukee regressed by three points to a 238 on NAEP testing while the rest of the Badger state improved its score by one point, rising to 267.

Milwaukee’s math scores were more encouraging, though they still trailed national trends for large cities. The city’s eighth grade math scores rose by three points (from 251 to 254) while its fourth grade scores rose marginally despite rounding to the same 220 figure that was recorded in 2009.

The disparity between students hailing from low and high-income backgrounds in 2011 is alarming. High-income students improved their fourth-grade reading scores from 216 to 224 in the two-year span. Conversely, low-income students held steady at 190 in both years. In eighth grade, the richer group posted a score of 255. Their lower-income counterparts fell from a grade of 237 to 234 in the same time frame. Similar disparities followed amongst the city’s reading scores.

One positive trend to note that eighth-grade math scores rose amongst both designated groups of students.

These results showcase the mounting problems with literacy in Wisconsin. At every selected percentile of student scores – from the lowest performing students to the highest – Milwaukee rates in the bottom five of all cities in the nation when it comes to reading. These scores put the district alongside places like Washington D.C., Cleveland, Detroit, and Fresno when it comes to literacy skills amongst public school students.

Milwaukee’s math scores are slightly better, but fail to crack the top 10 across the NAEP data’s selected percentiles. This places the city behind districts like Chicago, Baltimore, and Houston in almost every measure.

These NAEP data also showed that a significant achievement gap between races continues to exist in Milwaukee, but it is narrowing in some cases. For example, white students scored 24 points higher, on average, than their African-American counterparts when it came to eighth grade reading. However, this was an improvement over 2009’s results, which showed a 31-point gap. This 24 point disparity was tied for third-lowest amongst the 19 districts with recorded information.

While there are some positives that can be gleaned from the data, it’s hard not to view this latest release of nationwide data as a disappointing result for Milwaukee’s public schools. The city has regressed when it comes to teaching literacy skills and falls behind the U.S. average for large cities in all categories. In a city with lofty goals for the future, being grouped with places like Cleveland, Detroit, and Washington D.C. is not an encouraging prospect.

These data will place even more importance on how things are run in the state’s most scrutinized district. These NAEP scores show just how much work programs like Read to Lead and school accountability measures will have to do in order to just meet the national average for big city school districts.

The Nation’s Report Card offers a glimpse of how bad things are in Brew City. Now, it will take countless hours of hard work, innovation, and dedication to turn around some of the country’s worst urban public schools.