New Statewide Grading System for Wisconsin Public Schools in January, Sits as Precursor to Statewide Grading Reform

By Christian D’Andrea

MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

When Wisconsin’s second semester hits, parents in some districts will have more to look forward to when receiving their child’s report cards. It may be the beginning of sweeping reform when it comes to how we grade students, teachers, and schools.

New standards will make public school report cards more comprehensive in evaluating student performance across the state. Students’ grades now have room for more than just a letter. Teachers will have the opportunity to write comments detailing a pupil’s work habits and social skills in each subject.

The goal of the new reporting system is to increase teacher feedback and spur parental involvement in the classroom. In places like Racine, this means that teachers will have more room to comment on the issues behind a student’s grades. This will create a more personalized rubric for teachers that choose to take the extra step to connect student behavior to the grades that they have earned.

This can be considered the first change in a wave of school accountability reform that the state has undertaken in 2011. Other plans set for evaluation and implementation include new systems that would provide transparent grading systems for both schools and teachers. The school effectiveness program recently wrapped up a months-long process that aggregated data and metrics to better assess how the state’s public schools are performing. Three other programs aimed at teacher evaluation – including one spearheaded by the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) and another centered around southeastern Wisconsin school districts – have also reported preliminary findings and hope to be implemented in the coming year.

WEAC’s teacher effectiveness program was developed after the group refused to work with a state-led effort to reform teacher evaluations throughout the Badger State. The motivation behind this decisions was tied directly into the bitter debates over last spring’s passage of Act 10. It has yet to be seen how many elements of WEAC’s holistic grading approach are enacted in future reforms. Their action plan can be found here.

The Southeastern Wisconsin Teacher Evaluation Consortium is a collection of 30 area school districts that are also developing a program to grade educators. Participating districts include places like Waukesha, Oconomowoc, Kettle Moraine, and New Berlin. Each is contributing staffers and one dollar per enrolled student to work towards creating a stronger evaluation program. Their challenge, much like the state’s and WEAC’s, will be to find a way to separate the weak and strong teachers and build a stronger roster for students to learn from.

This slate of reform will mean big changes for Wisconsin’s public schools. However, with so many plans still in their infancy, it is difficult to gauge just how things will turn out. Any plan to effectively measure teacher performance will have to be an uncompromising look at the impact one person can have on a classroom. While tenets must be agreed on in order to factor in issues like students coming from a low-income background or special needs pupils, the overarching plan has to be one that connects schools from across the state in an accessible metric that parents and citizens can understand. This consideration is paramount to creating a transparent school system.

Increasing the amount of feedback on student report cards is just one step towards engaging parents and the public when it comes to classroom performance. Many more reforms are on their way to improve accountability in the state’s public schools – and the suggestions behind them will come from a variety of different sources. However, whether or not all this work can be developed into meaningful change has yet to be seen.

After decades of stagnant educational progress, Wisconsin can’t afford another half measure. Any changes in how students, teachers, and schools are graded have to be parts of a whole measure or else they’ll just add to the flat-lined culture that the state has been mired in for years.