Last week, we got the annual good news that Wisconsin “scores near top on ACT once again,” as a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel headline declared. Aping her predecessors, state Superintendent Elizabeth Burmaster hailed the results as proof of how dandy we’re doing in Badgerland. The “composite score speaks well of our students’ academic achievement and the support they receive from their parents and teachers,” she declared.
But are we really doing that well? A close look at the ACT test data offers some reason for caution. Yes, Wisconsin’s average score of 22.3 was high compared to the national average of 21.2 (with scores ranging from 18.9 for Mississippi to 23.5 for Massachusetts), but the percentage of students taking the test here is lower than in 15 states. While 70 percent of Wisconsin students take the test, the percentage is 100 in Illinois and Colorado, 96 in Tennessee and Mississippi, and ranges from 71 to 82 percent for another 11 states.
Why does this matter? As the percentage of students taking the test increases, you are likely to include more low-attendance and low-performance students in the mix, pushing the average score lower.
Burmaster brags that Wisconsin has maintained its high ACT score even as the percentage of students taking the test rose. But the increase was minimal, rising from 68 percent in 2002 to 70 percent last year. That includes a steady rise in the number of African-American and Hispanic students taking the test, but they still remain underrepresented.
“We allow people in this state to pound their chest while ignoring the fact that Milwaukee has significantly fewer kids taking (the ACT),” Milwaukee School Board member Terry Falk declared in the JS story. (Falk, a former contributor to Milwaukee Magazine, sure knows how to give good quotes.)
As a reality check, I looked at state scores combined with the percentage of students taking the test to estimate which states we might actually trail. A state like Mississippi, for instance, can be quickly rejected: Yes, 96 percent of students took the test, but the average score of 18.9 was abysmally low, worst among all 50 states. Even if Wisconsin tested 96 percent of students, its average score would never drop that low.