Wisconsin’s Graduation Rates Rise, but Attainment Gap Between African American and White Students Widens

April 9, 2012

by Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

[Madison, Wisc…] Wisconsin’s four-year graduation rates increased by half a point in 2011-2012, rising to 87.5 percent. Unfortunately, the state’s attainment gap rose as well – from 27.6 to 29.5 points between white and African American students.

DPI’s latest release on high school graduation in Wisconsin paints an optimistic picture for most of the state’s students. Seven out of eight freshmen in the fall of 2008 went on to earn their diploma by the summer of 2012. That improved on a mark that has traditionally been one of the nation’s best.

However, a look into performance by student group shows that the Badger State also maintained its spot at the top of a less prestigious list – leaders in the attainment gap between white and African American students.

WI Grad Rates by Race 2013

The state’s white students were nearly 30 percent more likely to graduate in four years than their African American counterparts. This reflects on earlier reports that showed that the state’s achievement gap between student groups was one of the widest in the nation. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results from 2009 showed that the state was facing serious problems in terms of fulfilling its educational duty for these students. From a 2009 New York Times article:

By 2007, the state with the widest black-white gap in the nation on the fourth-grade math test (not counting the District of Columbia) was not in the deep South, but in the Midwest — Wisconsin. White students there scored 250, slightly above the national average, but blacks scored 212, producing a 38-point achievement gap. That average score for black students in Wisconsin was lower than for blacks in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi or any other Southern state, and 10 points below the national average for black students, the study indicated.

Wisconsin was the only state in which the black-white achievement gap in 2007 was larger than the national average in the tests for fourth and eighth grades in both math and reading, according to the study.

Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, a nonprofit group in Washington that works to close achievement gaps, said principals in Wisconsin were “stunned” when shown the results.

“Black kids in Wisconsin do worse than in all these Southern states,” and the reason, Ms. Haycock said, was that Wisconsin educators “haven’t been focusing on doing what’s necessary to close these gaps.”

It is not just the New York Times that has exposed the problems Wisconsin has with the achievement gap. The MacIver Institute put out a report in 2009 that documented Wisconsin’s struggles with providing high quality education to all students and how Florida’s success could be adapted for the Badger State. In 2010 MacIver once again reported on the achievement gap in Wisconsin, and the problem still exists today, nearly three years later.

This year’s state-level data suggests that this problem has persisted into Wisconsin’s high schools. Another telling gap is the difference between economically disadvantaged and not economically disadvantaged students. DPI’s data shows that students from poorer families graduate at much lower rates than peers from more stable financial backgrounds. However, the state has shown progress in this area – 3.2 percent more students earned their diplomas despite a low family income in 2012 than they had in 2010.

While the achievement gap remains high for four-year matriculation rates, this gap closes when the scope of attainment is widened to five and six years. Graduation rates for almost all students increased when given extra time to complete high school coursework. Wisconsin’s African American students had the biggest increase of all student groups, upping their completion statistic by nearly nine percent.

WI 4,5,6 Year Grad Rates 2013

Tuesday’s release is a mixed bag for Wisconsinites. The state improved its four-year diploma rate and cemented its place as a national leader in terms of graduating students. However, it appears that recent initiatives to address the state’s long-term issues with the achievement and attainment gaps between students have yet to be successful. Wisconsin can’t afford to rest on its laurels despite an impressive overall performance. When less than two-thirds of any student group are likely to graduate from high school in four years, it’s tough to consider that grade anything but a failing mark.