Wisconsin Earns Good, Not Great, Marks on ALEC’s State Education Performance Index

By Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) recently released their Report Card on American Education, a publication that ranks and grades every state in America when it comes to educational results and policy. Wisconsin made progress across the board in the rankings – but still has work to do to be included amongst the highest-performing states in the country.

Wisconsin ranked 19th in the nation – and third in the Midwest – when it came to educational performance in their public schools.  This was an improvement from the 2010 index, which placed the Badger State 21st overall.  These grades were based on scores from NAEP testing – federal standardized data also known as “The Nation’s Report Card.”

The report focused on fourth-grade reading proficiency. Within this group, special attention was given to both children with disabilities and students who were eligible for free and reduced-price lunch. Wisconsin fell below the nationwide average in both categories, but was propped up by a strong performance amongst the majority of other students in public school classrooms.

Ultimately, ALEC’s national rankings boiled down to the achievement and gains of these underprivileged students in fourth and eighth grade. These scores reflected outcomes in both reading and math. Wisconsin placed 19th in the country and third in its region, just trailing Indiana and Minnesota in the Midwest.

When it came to education policy, the state earned a B- according to ALEC’s metric. This put Wisconsin behind at least 14 other states that earned higher marks, including Minnesota, Ohio, Indiana, and Missouri. This was a step up from 2010’s “C” grade from the council.

Wisconsin earned praise for expanding its private school choice program. The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program raised the income limit for participating families, eliminated the 22,500-student enrollment cap, and removed geographic limitations for participating schools. The state also began a pilot voucher program in Racine that will shed its enrollment cap by the 2013-2014 school year.

However, these expansions didn’t quite set the state apart from the rest of the country. Wisconsin was one of 13 states to expand or enact school choice programs in 2011.

This policy grade will likely improve in coming years thanks to new initiatives spearheaded by the governor’s office and the state Department of Public Instruction.  The Read to Lead, Educator Effectiveness, and School Accountability programs will all increase transparency and learning standards across Wisconsin’s classrooms. This should strongly improve the state’s grade in sections like “Teacher Quality and Policies,” where Wisconsin earned a “D” mark for their inability to release ineffective teachers and identify effective ones.

The rankings shed some light on what the state is doing right and what it is doing wrong when it comes to education. Wisconsin’s educational results had a slight bounce-back in 2011, but they were still outperformed by 18 other states. A B- grade on the policy end suggests that there’s still work to be done, even in a state that was once known for a pro-reform record when it comes to education reform.

If Wisconsin wants to regain its place amongst the national leaders – not just on ALEC’s scorecard, but across all measures of educational progress – then the reforms on the horizon in public classrooms must be effective and efficient. The state can’t afford to slide further down these ranks – and its children can’t afford that either. While the progress from 2010-2011 was a good start, Wisconsin will have to cover more ground in coming years to live up to the standards that many residents have for the schools in their neighborhoods.