2014-15 School Year a Turning Point for Education in Wisconsin?

The State of Education, 2014

September 4, 2014

by Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

The calendar has flipped over to September, and that means back-to-school season is in full swing. For Wisconsin’s children and their parents, the start of this school year will be like the start of any school year – new academic subjects to master, new school supplies to purchase and a whole new set of teachers to get to know. While all of our schools slip back into this familiar routine, k-12 education here in the Badger State is undergoing dramatic change and much needed reform. The 2014-15 school year will bring new challenges for students and teachers alike; let’s take a closer look at what lies ahead for the state’s public schools and the path they followed to get to this point.

The State of Wisconsin’s Educational Reforms

Just over three years ago, Wisconsin enacted some major educational reforms. Now, in 2014, the state stands to benefit from these changes.

One of the most important recently-enacted reforms – the Educator Effectiveness (EE) system – is set to be fully implemented this year. The 2014-15 school year will be the first year that teachers and principals will be evaluated by the Department of Public Instruction’s grading initiative.

This should be a big plus for Wisconsin. The EE system will rate teachers based on an even split between in-class evaluations and the performance of their students. This will give administrators, parents, and citizens tangible evidence of the value that their teachers bring to the classroom. This effort will allow for greater transparency in our schools and give administrators a valuable tool when it comes to identifying the teachers who are doing the most in the classroom.

EE was only one of three major reforms that took root back in 2011. Another grading process – this time for the state’s schools themselves – will continue operation this fall while incorporating some new improvements the Legislature passed last session.

The state’s School Report Cards, which measure student progress, achievement, postsecondary readiness, and achievement gaps, are set to release their third year of data. These grades have helped local parents by providing an objective score for each school, but they still need work to provide a comprehensive look at the state of Wisconsin’s K-12 schools. Legislation passed in 2014 will hold all publicly funded institutions to these grading standards, including voucher schools. This winter, lawmakers will return to the Capitol to discuss a program that would apply consequences and sanctions for schools with chronically failing grades.

The third reform initiative, the Read to Lead initiative, is still going strong as well. That reform was aimed at increasing the focus on early childhood literacy and should pay dividends for the state as its students grow into later grades and eventually graduate from high school.

The State of School Choice in Wisconsin

There are currently three programs that operate in Wisconsin and allow low-income families to attend the private school of their choice using a publicly funded voucher. City-based programs in Milwaukee and Racine accept students from families that make no more than 300 percent of the federal poverty level. The only participation caps on these programs are that they can only accept students from inside city limits.

The third program is a statewide initiative that was enacted in 2013 and headed into its second year of operation for the 2014-15 school year. The Parental Choice Program (PCP) is more limited than its city-specific peers. Students must come from families with an annual income that is less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level. Additionally, the participation cap was set at 500 students in its first year and will expand to 1,000 students this year. That cap will remain indefinitely. Only the 25 schools that receive the most applications are qualified to participate in the program.

School Choice Demand Text Box.pngDemand for slots in the PCP rose in 2014. 3,407 students applied for these vouchers this spring – an increase from 2,415 students in the previous year. The number of schools that applied for inclusion also swelled, jumping from 48 institutions to 68.

On Wednesday, Gov. Scott Walker suggested that he would support initiatives to lift that student cap.

“Whether it’s an absolute lift or a bigger increase than what we have currently today – some of it also in the state would have to keep pace with capacity,” Walker told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “I don’t know if it would happen all at once, but having more families have those choices, whether it’s in Madison or Green Bay or elsewhere across the state, is incredibly important.”

What Does The Data Show? Achievement Data, High Graduation Rates, and the Persistence of Some Major Educational Problems

Recent data shows that the state’s performance in K-12 achievement remains strong. Four-year graduation rates continued to rise in the state, climbing from 85.7 percent in 2010 to 88 percent for the class of 2013. ACT scores rose as well, increasing slightly as more students took the college readiness exam than the year prior. These gains went in line with higher reading and math scores when it came to performance on the WSAS – Wisconsin’s annual standardized testing suite.

13-14 WI Test Scores table.png

Additionally, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data released late in 2013 shows that Wisconsin is performing at or above the national average when it comes to reading and math in fourth and eighth grade.

13 WI NAEP Scores Table.png

However, there are less encouraging trends that have persisted as well. While the state’s four-year graduation rates and ACT averages were some of the best in the nation, Wisconsin’s achievement gap between white and African-American students was the highest in the country. Additionally, high numbers of the state’s high school graduates required remedial classes to prepare for rigorous college coursework. Nearly 1 in 4 students at UW-Madison required some form of remediation as freshmen, according to UW-System documents. That number only grew for the state’s public campuses outside of the capital.

Achievement Gap Remediation Text Box.pngOfficials have created specialized task forces to deal with both issues. State Superintendent Tony Evers presided over a group aimed at closing the achievement gap in meetings that took place this spring. They are expected to release their recommendations this fall.

That DPI action came after the University of Wisconsin conducted its own investigation into finding ways to stem the state’s remediation problem. The UW-System recently announced their plans to cut remediation rates by a third in the coming years. Time will tell whether or not the reforms created by these task forces can effectively cull two of Wisconsin’s biggest educational problems.

The State of Common Core in Wisconsin

While many these 2011 reforms are coming into focus for the 2014-15 school year, it is a decision made in 2010 that will, once again, garner the most headlines and cause the most political turmoil at the Capitol. That year, Evers adopted Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for mathematics and English language arts as part of the state’s Race to the Top application. Those actions put Wisconsin in line for new standards and a new series of tests (Smarter Balanced in grades 3-8, the ACT in grades 9-11) to replace the outdated and ineffective Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination (WKCE). These new tests will be used for the first time this fall.

However, it may not last long. Activists rallied against the standards in 2013 and 2014, prompting legislators to convene a special committee to hear public testimony on the benefits and drawbacks of CCSS. Last spring, more than 50 administrators flooded a hearing at the Capitol to testify that these nationally-normed standards were a step in the right direction for Wisconsin. That testimony seemed to help calm the issue briefly, but Gov. Walker threw the whole issue right back into political uncertainty in July when he called on state officials to repeal CCSS.

Lawmakers will now face pressure to act on Common Core in January when the next Legislature convenes. Repealing CCSS would mean more than just inserting new standards – it would mean reworking all the other reforms that took several years to enact and that operate based on CCSS aligned examinations.

The biggest effect of having CCSS in Wisconsin this fall will be the implementation of two different testing suites in grades 3-11. Officials finally replaced the limited WKCE state standardized test with a pair of programs that align with Common Core. Smarter Balanced assessments will help educators in grades 3-8 to track student growth and achievement in a more meaningful manner than the WKCE had allowed in the past.

In high schools, the ACT will help students prepare for college while providing feedback on student progress in grades 9-11. Previously, the WKCE had only tested students in grade 10 which led to a gap in useful pupil data in Wisconsin’s high schools.

While many educators and administrators have voiced their support of CCSS and the new tests that will accompany them, a vocal opposition remains. What Wisconsin will do with the standards – and all of the data and reform efforts that are tied to CCSS – will remain up in the air while we all eagerly await the end of campaign season and the start of policy work.

The 2014-15 school year is turning out to be a critical moment for our children and the future of education in Wisconsin. New reforms designed to identify and promote the best schools and teachers while attempting to fix the low performers are taking a deeper hold in Wisconsin’s schools. Greater transparency and more performance data are coming online for parents. Children will continue to see more opportunities to attend a school of their choice that best fits their individual learning needs. But, all of these much needed reforms efforts will be overshadowed by the upcoming debate on what to do with Common Core. The upcoming school year will be a big one for the Badger State, but with the fate of Wisconsin’s children at stake, there are no small years.