What the Wisconsin School Accountability Program Should Look Like

By Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

In the near future the final recommendations of three task forces dedicated to improving public education in Wisconsin are expected to be unveiled. This includes the work of the Wisconsin School Accountability Design Team, a group saddled with creating a metric by which the state’s schools will be graded.

The ultimate goal of this task force is to create a comprehensive and transparent system that helps parents, students, and citizens better understand the quality of their neighborhood schools. Ultimately, it would gauge the progress of both students and teachers and provide performance comparisons across districts, states, and even countries. It will take the place of the beleaguered No Child Left Behind program, a federal mandate that often failed to create meaningful positive change in the state’s public schools.

However, creating a metric to include all these goals is the difficult part. Issues like the inclusion of different subjects, determining which tests will be used to gauge progress, and how to weigh low-performing and underprivileged students has caused turmoil design team meetings that have occasionally become contentious. Some school leaders are concerned that they could be unfairly graded and carry the stigma of low-performance into the future. Others worry that a lax accountability system will offer little differentiation and obscure the transparency that the program is aiming to create.

Ideally, the school accountability program would include:

  • Transparent grades that the public can easily digest. This means an A-F system that people can understand, rather than more cryptic terms. This will allow for an easy comparison across the state and across districts themselves. This will empower parents and help families find the right schools that fit their children best. While this will add an element of competition to the grading process, schools in danger of losing students thanks to low grades may find extra motivation for improvement.
  • Extra attention – potentially through additional grading weight – for the lowest performing students. Florida’s school grading system, considered to be a model for Wisconsin’s school accountability program (or at least a starting point) emphasized the performance of the students that needed the most help. They essentially double-counted the reading and math scores of the pupils in the bottom 25 percent of their schools when factoring them into a school’s grade. This ensured an additional focus on students that are struggling without abandoning the performance of a school’s top students.
  • Considerations to the amount of low-income students in a school. This would effectively curve the grading system to reward schools that are making progress with economically disadvantaged students. Wisconsin is a very unbalanced state when it comes to per capita income. The state’s 426 school districts often swing wildly from region to region when it comes to the economic backgrounds of students. Most often, areas with the highest concentrations of low-income pupils fare the worst when educational progress is measured.How to implement such a program has several moving parts. However, it’s clear that, in order to create comparisons that can be accurately gauged across the state, this is a necessary piece in ensuring fair, easily comparable grades from Milwaukee to Superior.
  • Value-added testing data to gauge student progress and a teacher’s value over the course of a school year. Tests taken in the fall and spring could measure how students are learning at each grade within an institution. Not only would this show Wisconsinites how its students are progressing, but also fall in line with the upcoming Educator Effectiveness program, which will grade a teacher’s performance in the classroom. It would give parents a better idea of just what an educator has added to their child’s education.The idea behind value-added testing is that students that enter a grade behind their peers won’t drag down their classroom’s average. Instead of an overall grade level, this testing will measure the growth of a student – so if a student that has fallen behind is motivated and taught well enough to meet the class average, he or she would produce a higher value-added score than a student that maintains that average. In short, it rewards progression and penalizes regression beyond just what WKCE averages tell us.
  • Proper standards for choice and charter schools. These schools should be held accountable as much as traditional public schools. The use of value-added testing and student data that tracks progress rather than benchmarks will ensure that these institutions are fairly graded and given more direct comparisons to the regular public schools in their regions.
  • Turnaround measures for failing schools. So now that we know how schools are performing, what do we do with them? Policy needs to be put in place that allows these schools to remove ineffective educators and administrators and bring in the talent they need to make strides towards a better education. This should align with the upcoming teacher evaluation systems in order to help these schools identify which individuals are bringing value to their classrooms. This intervention will put an onus on underperforming institutions and highlight the need for real reform when students aren’t learning in Wisconsin’s schools.
  • Data measurement systems that can sync with national and global rankings. This metric needs to be able to measure up from state to state and even across countries. Adopting Common Core of Data standards should help create a comparable and accurate system of measurement that allows us to compare Wisconsin’s schools with other across the country. Global comparisons are a bit trickier – but PISA or TIMSS testing, even on a limited basis, could provide valuable information when it comes to stacking Wisconsin’s public schools against those of worldwide leaders.
  • Revisable options to accommodate a new breed of teachers and students. The accountability system has to have a dedicated board to track results and address any shortcomings the program may have. This includes adopting new measures and self-reporting flaws and problems that may arise and negatively affect schools.

Ideally, the school accountability design team will create a program that presents clear and understandable data for parents and students so they can better understand the quality of their public schools. This needs to go beyond an insulated neighborhood level to work beyond districts, into other states, and even to other countries. Wisconsin’s educational outcomes have hit a disappointing era of limited growth and even regression. Increasing the public’s awareness of just how strong their neighborhood schools are will not only empower parents, but pressure underperforming institutions to improve.

It will be a large task to undertake, and the debates that have raged at design team meetings suggest that consensus outside of major topics has been hard to find. Still, the successful implementation of a program that accurately grades Wisconsin’s public schools and delivers more information to citizens will be powerful. It will give legitimacy to the state’s more successful schools and spur improvement in ones that are falling behind. However, this metric must be comprehensive and fair to ensure that grades are earned properly rather than just being the product of a potentially gamed system.

This is a major task for the design team, but with members ranging from almost every aspect of Wisconsin’s public education, it’s something that can be done. If these groups can work together, we’ll soon have a comprehensive system by which we can grade schools. If these groups can’t agree or exercise too much caution in their system, we may just end up with another set of standards that tell us little about Wisconsin’s classrooms – almost like the WKCE.

If the system is well constructed and implemented properly, students, teachers, parents, and Wisconsinites everywhere will benefit.