As Wisconsin Children Return To School, MacIver Examines The State of Education In Wisconsin

How Do Our Children and Our Schools Stack Up?

September 7, 2016

By Ola Lisowski
MacIver Institute Research Associate

Sharpen your pencils, kids. Parents and taxpayers, too. With Labor Day weekend just behind us and schools back in session, summer vacation is over. It is the time of year where Wisconsinites are forced to pay too much for school supplies – thanks a lot, minimum markup! – and we take stock of the state of education in Wisconsin. While the professional educrats and your friendly local school superintendent will tell you everything in Wisconsin is perfect and all of our children are brilliant National Merit Scholarship winners, your humble public servants here at MacIver would like to present an honest examination of our schools and our education system in Wisconsin.


The education saga of the summer involved the ever-vexed Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program (OSPP), which was established with the intent of turning around up to five of the poorest performing schools a year within Milwaukee Public Schools. Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele appointed Mequon-Thiensville Superintendent Demond Means to the post of OSPP Commissioner. The move disappointed many supporters of reform, largely because of his inexperience working with disadvantaged populations but also because Means himself is an MPS graduate and a lifelong education bureaucrat. Reformers immediately raised questions that he wouldn’t make the drastic reforms needed to start the turnaround of MPS.

Wisconsin needs the OSPP because the numbers are so dismal at MPS. The latest data available shows that the four-year graduation rate is only 58 percent, 30 points below the statewide average. Only 26 percent of MPS students scored proficient on the English Language Arts portion of the Badger Exam, roughly half the statewide average. The results were even worse in math. While 44 percent of students statewide demonstrated proficiency in math, only 16.5 percent of MPS students fared the same. The state also has one of the worst achievement gaps in the country, thanks largely in part to the poor performance of MPS. The state’s four-year diploma achievement gap between White and African-American students rose by one percent to 28.9 percent in 2014-2015, compared to 27.9 percent in the previous year.

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All told, more than 31,500 MPS students attend 55 schools in MPS that fail to meet expectations on the last state report card. MPS is the only school district in the state that failed to meet expectations.

Turns out, the bigger problem and the much taller hurdle to clear was the MPS school board and the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA). MTEA and their professional protester friends objected to the OSPP every step of the way, trying to convince Milwaukee that rather than allow “outsiders” to take over their schools, they should be satisfied with their crummy performance.

After many months of seemingly little progress implementing his mild turnaround plan, Means resigned. Citing the atmosphere of education in Milwaukee, he declared that “the focus on children gets lost, and conversations about policy and practice become about the adults.”
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The man is not wrong. His plan bent over backwards to be kind to the MPS school board and the perpetually poor-performing schools in MPS. Means himself seemed to almost apologize for the turnaround plan, saying that the plan wasn’t ideal for the state’s largest and most beleaguered district, but that it had to be done. He made it clear time and time again that the highest priority of the turnaround plan was job security for adults in Milwaukee, not the academic success of our children.

True to their obstinate and obstructionist ways, MPS Superintendent Darienne Driver and board President Mark Sain introduced their very own proposal, which in their words, focused on early childhood education as the solution to MPS’ pathetic performance.

OSPP’s co-authors, Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) and Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield), were miffed. Not only did the Driver/Sain proposal deliberately ignore the requirements of state law, it also didn’t satisfy the Obama administration’s new federal law (the Every Student Succeeds Act – more on that later) which requires states to intervene in the lowest 5 percent of performing schools.

Means resigned on June 29th. A full two months later, as tens of thousands of Milwaukee children return to their failing schools for another year of frustration and failure, Abele has not named a replacement for Means or even publicly talked about the importance of pressing ahead to reform MPS.

Meanwhile, at each chance they get, MPS espouses the record-breaking numbers of scholarships that graduates earned this year. In the very email where Driver announced the alternate OSPP proposal, she highlighted the $46.8 million in scholarships that MPS students received.

To be clear: we’re proud of those students, and are happy for them, their families, and their schools. They’re doing great work, and they should be praised for it. But a measure of the best of the best out of over 77,000 students isn’t a valid portrayal of that group’s success. In more than 30 MPS schools, fewer than 10 percent of students are proficient in math.BacktoSchool PullQuote MathProficiency.png In two schools, zero students are proficient in math. You won’t see Driver close her emails with that stat. If it is to ever improve, the state’s largest district – as well as its board, its teachers’ union, its parents and its students – all need to stop the sugarcoating.

In the coming year, we hope to see OSPP move along, though the path forward is unclear. One place to start would be naming a new Commissioner committed to the hard work of saving Milwaukee’s children from failure.

With Enrollment Capped, School Choice Programs Sputter Along

The number of students participating in choice programs is expected to grow this year, though exact enrollment numbers won’t be clear for another few months. Other than the slow but steady growth, no major changes are expected for any of the state’s school choice programs this school year.

Fifty-three new schools applied to participate in the statewide school choice program – an increase of 65 percent over last year – according to the Department of Public Instruction. The increased demand on the part of schools far exceeds the enrollment cap.

Last year, 2,514 students were enrolled in the statewide program, 27,619 in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, and 2,217 students in the Racine Parental Choice Program, for a total of 32,350 students. The 1 percent cap on pupil membership per each public school district will still be in play this year, but will increase by 1 percent in the next year, allowing for at least some of the massive demand for school choice to be satisfied.

With all the hullabaloo and political controversy surrounding school choice, it sometimes gets lost in all the mudslinging that educational choice is commonplace in Wisconsin. Almost 30 percent of all families statewide exercise some sort of choice and in Milwaukee, over 80 percent of students attend a school of their choosing. This is clearly not a novel concept. The voters approve of the program, too – a June poll showed that 54 percent of those polled support the statewide program, while 45 percent oppose it. Among Republican voters, 69 percent support statewide school choice and 30 percent oppose it. Among Democrats, 42 percent support the program while 54 oppose itStatewide School Choice Income Limits.png.

It’s also important to note that despite the rhetoric, school choice remains income-limited. That means that no, it’s not a program for rich people: in the statewide program, new students’ annual family income is capped at 185 percent of the federal poverty line, or $44,123 for a family of four. That’s hardly the silver spoon elite. Those opposed may lie, but numbers don’t.

For the time being, most Wisconsin students must attend their neighborhood public schools, regardless of their academic FriedmanPublicSchoolEffects.pngoutcomes or even their safety, if their parents aren’t well-off enough to send them off to a private school. For now, we’re happy to know that in Wisconsin and particularly in Milwaukee, choice programs improve academic outcomes in public schools. That’s the positive power of competition, folks. We hope that one day, all Wisconsin children will have access to a quality education regardless of zip code.

Disappointing ACT Exam Scores

As MNS reported earlier this summer, Wisconsin’s graduating class of 2016 scored an average of 20.5 out of 36 on the ACT exam, a 1.7 point drop from last year’s graduating class. The score drops Wisconsin’s ranking to fourth out of the 18 states that test all public school graduates and third in the midwest. Before all of our students were required to take the ACT exam, Wisconsin scores typically came in second nationally behind Minnesota.

The new scores continue to show significant racial and ethnic disparities in every subject, with a 5.6 percent achievement gap between White and African-American students, and a 3.6 point achievement gap between White and Hispanic students. Such gaps are present throughout Wisconsin’s education system. While the four-year graduation rate for White students statewide was 92.9 percent in the 2014-15 school year, it was 64 percent among African-American students and 77.5 percent among Hispanic students. That amounts to a 28.9 percent achievement gap for African-American students and a 15.4 percent ACT Midwest Scores2.pngachievement gap for Hispanic students.

Education officials have warned the public not to compare the score to previous years since the class of 2016 is the first that was required to take the exam as juniors. However, the large drop in the average score, which has typically only ever moved by tenths of a point at a time, should still serve as a warning sign and be taken with great heed.

Some will argue that it’s a waste of time to test all students and that the results won’t mean much anyway, because not all of those tested aspire to attend college. Regardless of students’ future plans, that all public school students are finally taking the ACT is a clear positive. The ability to compare students’ demonstration of core skills across state lines and among different demographics is crucial. It is hard to judge how successful we are in educating our children if we don’t test all of our children.

Let’s remember – this isn’t the SAT, which requires students to memorize vocabulary as a snapshot of their skills. Rather than testing memorization, the ACT stresses the importance of reasoning abilities and thought processes. Learning such skills is crucial for young students, whether or not they plan on pursuing higher education.

The ACT and its accompanying suite of exams are becoming commonplace across the country. Wisconsin freshmen and sophomores in high school are now taking the ACT Aspire exam, and 11th graders are taking the ACT WorkKeys. While Wisconsin’s lawmakers have changed our state assessment too many times recently – public school students have taken three different standardized tests in the last three years – hopefully the ACT will stick around so we can get on with the task of improving all of our schools.

Positive Indicators: the Graduation Rate, AP scores, Remedial Education, and UW Enrollment

Since the statewide assessment has changed so many times in recent years, it is difficult to compare students’ scores year-over-year. The same problem exists for the ACT, since this past year was the first time it was required for all public school students. So are there other indicators out there that give us an idea of how our schools are performing?

In the 2014-15 school year, the statewide four-year high school graduation rate was 88.4 percent. While achievement gaps exist between ethnic and racial groups, overall, the graduation rate is higher than surrounding states. In the same year, 81.9 percent of Minnesotan students graduated in four years. In Illinois, 86 percent of students achieved the same. Iowans fared the best in the Midwest, with a four-year graduation rate of 90.8 percent, with Michigan at the other end of the spectrum with only 79 percent of students graduating in four years. Compared to students in neighboring states, more Wisconsinites graduate high school on time.

While in high school, more Wisconsinites are also taking more challenging classes. At over 64,000 AP exams taken in the 2014-15 school year, the number of Advanced Placement (AP) exams taken in the state has continually increased year-over-year since 2011. Students took 5,000 more exams between the Class of 2014 and 2015 alone. At 66.6 percent of exams scored 3 or above in the 2014-15 school year, scores are down slightly, though the increase in test-takers is encouraging. In the same year, 14.4 percent of students participated in taking at least one AP exam compared to 10.4 percent of students in the 2010-11 school year. That participation rate has steadily increased by about 1 percent – or an average of 4,478 more students – each year. In other words: while the number of Wisconsin high schoolers taking AP exams is still too small, that number is getting larger each and every year. That’s good news. AP Exams Stats.png

AP exams are important indicators not only for college readiness but for future levels of college debt. A passing score of 3 or higher typically translates directly into college credit, especially at University of Wisconsin schools. At UW-Madison, a 3 on any AP exam awards the exam-taker at least 3 credits. For a resident, that translates to $1,349 in tuition fees in a standard non-engineering course. Students who enter college having taken AP courses are not only less likely to need remedial education but also more likely to graduate faster and to have lower levels of student debt.

More students are taking STEM classes and AP exams, too. Since the 2010-11 school year, the percent of biology exams scored 3 or above has increased by 34 percent. Scores in calculus are also up, with 64.1 percent of exam-takers achieving a 3 or higher. However, participation rates are still low – with 2 percent of students taking entry-level calculus in the 2014-15 school year, up from 1.6 percent in 2010-11.

For the time being, the number of students taking and succeeding in AP courses is a great indicator for the quality of our high schools. Another indicator is enrollment in universities. Some UW System schools – such as UW-Eau Claire, UW-La Crosse, and UW-Stevens Point – are reporting record-breaking enrollments for in-state new freshmen. Certainly, more Wisconsin students enrolling in college means that high schools are generally doing better.

On the other side of the coin, the UW System is still working to address remedial education that is required to catch up our incoming freshmen. In August 2014, the UW System reported that 21 percent of incoming freshmen needed remedial math courses. Of those students, 66 percent finished the coursework in one year. Within five years, the system hopes to reduce the percentage of freshmen needing remedial education to 14 percent, with 76 percent of those students completing the coursework within a year. The UW System also reported that while the percentage of new freshmen requiring remedial courses in math has fallen slightly in recent years, it has increased in English.

It’s an issue that’s attracting more attention in Wisconsin, and DPI has stated publicly that they are working to address the issue. In 2015, Wisconsin Act 28 established that the UW Board of Regents would be required to create an annual report compiling which high schools graduated more than six students who were required to take remedial courses. Right now, publicly-available data only shows the participation rate of remedial coursework at each university, but not where those students are coming from. The hope is that once those high schools are identified, more strategic work can be done at the high school level – rather than the university level – to improve outcomes. DPI has also made their achievement standards tougher and more rigorous in order to align expectations closer with those of business and community leaders. High schools are working more closely with certain UW schools, such as UW-Parkside, to better align curricula and to ensure that incoming college students are better prepared.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)

President Obama’s keystone education reform act, passed in December 2015, is the first of its kind since 2001’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB). In the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the words “strict flexibility” are the name of the game.

Wait, what? At first glance, the phrase “strict flexibility” sounds like classic Washington-speak, almost Orwellian. But the more you think about where federal education laws have been, and to where they’ve come, strict flexibility starts to makes sense.

Since its enactment 15 years ago, NCLB has largely come to be seen as a federal overreach in education by both major parties. ESSA takes the reins back a bit – it allows states to create their own rules, but requires them to create rules on a multitude of aspects focused on school improvement. It specifically prohibits the federal Department of Education from mandating specific sets of standards onto the states.

However, states must still set some standards, now known as state plans. State plans must include evidence-based interventions and strategies to improve schools via their district, state, and among families and communities. States must satisfy requirements ranging from statewide assessments to 95 percent test participation in order to receive federal education funding. And yes, ESSA stresses the importance of getting students towards remediation-free coursework at the university level. No more of this getting to college and redoing half of high school again. That’s expensive, and the feds know it.

As written, ESSA leaves plenty of room for differences in interpretation, which means the rule-writing process will be particularly complicated among the states. For example, ESSA places a major emphasis on evidence-based strategies but doesn’t itself define the term “evidence-based.” At the federal level, some legislators are contesting the way that John King, the Secretary of Education, is directing that department to implement the law.

In response, Wisconsin’s DPI has been holding listening sessions across the state this summer, both for the general public and for educators. For the time being, DPI is examining the input and data they received at those sessions, where they asked participants a variety of open-ended questions on testing, achievement gaps, and state monitoring. BacktoSchool PullQuote.png

Expect a draft state plan from DPI around next March. The proposed regulation deadline to implement is July 5 of next year. Until then, let’s settle in for some good old-fashioned waiting on government bureaucracies to write their own rules.

The kids in the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools? They’ll just have to wait, whether or not they or their communities can afford it. As we’ve seen, such is the story in almost every corner of education today, from statewide school choice, to the OSPP project: the educrats ponder, the children wait. More than 30,000 MPS students will attend a school that qualifies as failing this year while education officials’ sugary press releases will highlight the small fraction of students doing well. In the meantime, it’s on us to remember that politics is downstream from culture. If we want better results, we must demand them – starting not with our government but with our parents and children. It’s on all of us. Every single one.

Let’s get to work.