Wisconsin Scores Plunge Under Tougher Accountability Standards

By Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

On Wednesday, the Department of Public Instruction released a document that had been in the works for over a year – the state’s new standards for student performance. This accountability program will be a part of the puzzle that replaces the existing, inefficient, and ineffective No Child Left Behind system with a more stringent set of standards. The results for Wisconsin’s schools won’t be positive – at least at first.

DPI’s announcement came with projetions on how past years’ results would stack up with the new grading system. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel was the first to report on how last year’s Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination (WKCE) would translate to this new metric. The results weren’t pretty. Scores dropped dramatically across the board, leaving the majority of Wisconsin’s students falling below the cut line for what is now considered “Proficient” in reading and math skills in elementary and middle schools.

These new standards are being put in place to phase out the outdated NCLB standards. This new metric will be more strongly aligned with national standards and place a greater emphasis on college readiness. It will also take into account the eventual replacement for the WKCE, which is a flawed test that offers little to inform the public about student growth. Combined, this new accountability program will give Wisconsinites a stronger, more authentic look into how their schools and their students are performing.

The DPI translation of last year’s student data shows how bad things have gotten thanks to the lax standards of the past. Let’s start with Wisconsin’s results based on the old WKCE standards. In 2011, the state’s students rated Proficient or better at a 81.9 percent rate in reading. For math, this figure was 78 percent.

Now, let’s use the prior year calculations of how those same students would have fared on the test with the new standards in place. Of the students that took the WKCE this fall, only 35.8 percent would have tested at Proficient or better when it comes to reading. That figure rises to 48.1 percent in math, but is still wholly disappointing. These startling decreases highlight just how inflated the state’s former standards had been.

The next round of state testing will bring some alarming numbers that are similar to those that have already been reported by the DPI. While districts will have some time to prepare for the new emphasis on college readiness skills within core subjects like reading and math, there is a very good chance that the majority of Wisconsin students fall behind this new curve. While that is a bad thing for 2012, it should be the catalyst for a positive trend in Wisconsin into the future.

The old standards created an insular bubble for the state’s schools, and this illusion of progress has been a factor in stagnant educational growth. While education reform fell to the wayside on the basis of solid test results, Wisconsin was being passed by other states in the union that have not traditionally been known for their strength in the classroom. This was something that we touched on earlier this week thanks to a recently released Harvard study.

Hopefully, the adoption of more stringent standards will serve as the wakeup call that the state needs to address education in a new light. Last year’s reading and accountability reforms were a strong step forward. There’s still plenty of more work that needs to be done – and several strong examples that the Badger State can follow on the path to a public school renaissance.

There are concerns, however, that come with any system that relies on standardized testing. How will the WKCE measure student growth to accurately reflect what a student has learned in the course of a year? How do you ensure that educators aren’t just teaching to the test but instead imprinting valuable knowledge that can be retained down the line? How can we properly interpret what is ultimately just a snapshot of student data?

Standardized testing won’t tell us what we need to know about Wisconsin’s schools, especially with a mechanism as flawed as the WKCE. Improvements ushered in by the state’s new school accountability program will help to gauge student progress, but ultimately the success of these children will be tied to their college readiness and development into the workforce. Raising the bar for education in Wisconsin to reflect greater college readiness is a strong step forward in an era where university-bound students still require record levels of remediation after graduating from high school.

This new outlook on educational results won’t be the panacea Wisconsin needs to fix its educational problems, but it will open some eyes across the state. It will serve to spark parental and community involvement and create the discussion of how to make things between in neighborhood schools. That’s a good thing for Wisconsin, and if implemented properly, it will be an even better thing for a new generation of students.