Casey Foundation: Wisconsin’s Early Reading Achievement Gap Below the U.S. Average

Smaller Gap Due to Below Average Scores in Higher Income Students

February 27, 2014

by Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

Students from higher-income families in Wisconsin are 135 percent more likely to be proficient at reading in the fourth grade than their lower-income peers – and that gap is actually less than the national average. So how is Wisconsin pulling this achievement gap together? Through below-average scores for the students that do not come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

That’s according to the latest release from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a nonprofit organization aimed at meeting the needs of America’s vulnerable children and families. The group studied reading proficiency across the nation’s fourth graders through the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a collection of biennial tests that are given to children throughout the country. To better understand the impact of coming from an economically disadvantaged background on test scores, researchers broke out the marks of two groups of students – those who qualified for free or reduced price lunch according to their family’s income, and those who did not. That income limit was $43,567.50 for a family of four in the 2013-2014 school year.

Their results showed that learning gaps between groups of students have fallen behind the national average in Wisconsin – but still persist in big way.

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Only 20 percent of Wisconsin’s fourth grade students from lower-income families tested at proficient or better on 2013’s NAEP reading test. That number rose to 47 percent amongst higher-income pupils, leading to a 27-point proficiency gap. While high, that number was below the national average gap of 31 points. Wisconsin rated 28th out of 51 states and the District of Columbia when it came to the difference in reading scores between these two groups of students.

That placed Wisconsin in front of states like Minnesota, Illinois, and every New England state except for Maine.

However, the state fell right in line with the national average when it came to its reading score for economically disadvantaged students. The reason behind the state’s relatively small proficiency gap was thanks to a below-average reading rate for Wisconsin’s higher income fourth-graders. Thirty states posted higher literacy scores than Wisconsin did when it came to students that do not qualify for free or reduced price lunch.

As a whole, the state saw 35 percent of its fourth-grade students earn proficient marks or higher in 2013’s reading assessment. That tied the Badger State with Missouri, Montana, and North Carolina for 25th place nationally. Massachusetts led the way with 47 percent of their students qualifying as proficient readers.

The data compiled in the Casey Foundation’s study suggests that Wisconsin’s achievement gap may be shrinking in the state’s earlier grades, but that isn’t due to above-average scores from the state’s economically disadvantaged students. In fact, the reason why Wisconsin is beating the national average is instead due to lower proficiency scores in reading for the students that come from higher income families. While it’s too early to tell if this trend will continue as students matriculate through school, it’s a disappointing piece of the greater picture of education scores in the Badger State.