Are Wisconsin’s Schools Now Being Graded on a Curve?

August 6, 2016

By James Wigderson

The following column originally appeared at

Starting this fall the state’s report cards for schools will not only show how many students reach the designated reading and math levels, but also the progress students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds make in reaching those goals.

“Some of the changes which we helped usher through will not only take a socioeconomic and more of a nuanced view of some of those things, but also on the weighting of the calculations,” Jim Bender, president of School Choice Wisconsin, said in an interview Wednesday.

“It recognizes that, especially in high-poverty areas, there are students that are entering school at a different level than in areas where there are no problems,” Bender said. “For schools with mostly students in poverty, reaching that proficiency score is much more difficult.”

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The Department of Public Instruction compiles the data that is used for report cards on every school in the state with students whose educations are publicly funded. The 2016-17 school year will be the first that private schools with students receiving vouchers will be part of the report card system. The report cards began in 2012 to provide parents with more information before choosing a school for their children.

Bender said that in the old report card system the number of students attaining proficiency and the number of students making progress were weighted evenly.

“But what that really resulted in was a really high emphasis on your proficiency scores,” Bender said. “What’s going to happen moving forward is that if you’re a school with a high percentage of poverty students, your score is going to be weighted more on the growth of those students over time and less on the proficiency.”

As an example, Bender said that if a school with a high poverty rate with a low level of students proficient in math and reading showed those students were making more than a year’s progress, then the school’s score would go up even if the kids do not reach proficiency.

“We feel a school should be rewarded for that, not penalized, simply because they haven’t reached a proficiency score,” Bender said.

“Now, if you’re a school with a high percentage of poverty kids, a very low percentage of whom are proficient, and you’re not moving the kids up at a high rate, then you’re going to have a very low score,” Bender said. “You’re not doing what the expectation is, moving kids up the ladder.”

Judging the metrics

Brett Healy, president of the John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy, has some concerns about the new emphasis on growth over proficiency.

“While it is vitally important that any academic measurement system track the value-added growth of each individual student’s progress, I hope we will not be satisfied with marginal improvement for our most-challenging students,” Healy said in a statement. “I’m worried that the new metrics will give Wisconsinites a false sense of contentment that all of our schools are good schools and that all of our children are doing well.”

Healy also said he would like to see the report cards made easier for parents to understand.

“I’m disappointed that the report cards do not use a straightforward A-F grading system. A truly effective report card system must be easy to understand for everyone,” Healy said.

Bender also had some changes that he would like to see in the system.

“One thing that has to be dealt with is called career readiness,” Bender said. “The report card as it is set up now is more geared toward college readiness, meaning our students score well enough on tests to get into a four-year institution. This is certainly a very valid metric for a segment of the population. I think we really need to move to a system that shows how a school is reflective of real life. Are they meeting the job demands and the professional demands of employers in the area?”

Bender also said that the report cards don’t reflect what many parents are looking for in a school.

“We know from a lot of anecdotal evidence that parents in the urban settings, in Racine, in Milwaukee, in Beloit and in other areas, school safety and school culture rank very, very high as a motivating factor for why they are choosing the schools they are choosing,” Bender said.

Read the original column here.