Lake Wobegon Comes to Wisconsin

By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institu

In Garrison Keillor’s fictional world of Lake Wobegon, “all of the children are above average.” Unfortunately, we never learn if the schools are above average, too.

In Wisconsin, we’re moving closer to understanding how well our schools are performing. The State Superintendent for the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) Tony Evers and Governor Scott Walker worked together to create a scoring system to allow parents to better understand the quality of the schools in their districts. However, even with the scoring the quality of a particular school or school system may remain opaque to the parents deciding the best course of education for their child.

For many parents, the worst part about getting a child’s report card is not discovering the kid is flunking ceramics and basket weaving. It’s trying to figure out that the kid is flunking ceramics and basket weaving. Gone are the As, Bs, and Cs we grew up with. Now we have a system of dots dashes and slashes that look like a code designed by Boris and Natasha and the key was lost “by moose and squirrel.”

The state DPI has assigned scores the same way to each of Wisconsin’s schools. Trying to reconcile them with your child’s needs may be a tad difficult.

The MacIver Institute has tried to simplify the scoring to a more manageable letter grade, both for the districts as a whole and for the individual schools. In the most recent analysis by the MacIver Institute, the Waukesha School District earned a C.

The analysis of the DPI scoring discovered some good news. None of the district’s schools earned a failing grade. On the flip side, none of the schools earned an A. At a glance, the district looks awfully darn average.

However, there is a grade inflator built into the mix.

The DPI scores each school on “student achievement,” “closing gaps,” “student growth,” and “on-track and postsecondary readiness.” Student achievement is the level of student knowledge. Closing gaps refers to achievement among different ethnic groups and backgrounds. Student growth is the amount of progress. And the on-track rating tracks whether students are ready to move on to post-secondary education.

The on-track rating is applied at every level of schooling, regardless of how close the school is to the post-secondary level. It is not a result of the other scores, but is instead an independent score. For example, Waukesha’s elementary schools earn a low C in student achievement. They earn a solid C in student growth. They earn a D in closing gaps. But the overall score was a high C because they earned an A for the on-track rating, even though grade schools cannot even be rated on the data that would suggest if the students are on track for college.

Whittier Elementary gets a C in student growth, a D in closing gaps, and an F in Student Achievement. However, the school still gets a B for its On Track score. The school still gets a D overall, as you would expect from the first three scores, but a parent looking at the B might think that starting a student there puts them on the right track to college.

Whittier gets a B for the On Track score based on a 6.8/20 on the third grade reading score (compared to the statewide average 11.3/20) and 71.1/80 in attendance rate (compared to a statewide average of 74.2/80). There is no score for graduation rate (obviously), 8th grade math achievement (obvious again), and ACT Participation and Performance. Somebody needs to remind DPI that Doogie Howser MD was a fictional character.

Given the low score in third grade reading and the higher score in attendance, clearly the on track score is the result of student attendance at Whittier. But underneath those scores, DPI lists “student engagement indicators” and Whittier actually loses points because the goal was not met for absenteeism.

So how does the on track grade help parents when it relies upon incomplete data at a level that does not even apply to the school being graded? Especially when the data for the grade does not match a measurement of the same data for a different area of the report card?

The answer is, the report cards by the DPI earn a D for “needs improvement.” Parents are still left to their own intuition and a reading of sacrificed data entrails when it comes to making the right choice for their children.

Wisconsin is moving in the right direction with the grading of the state’s schools. The MacIver Institute has helped by making the grades simpler to understand. But DPI needs to work on scoring the underlying data to make the grades meaningful.