The State of Education in Wisconsin

Will Flanders & Dylan Palmer:

How does Wisconsin stack up against other states in K-12 education? An eye-popping list from U.S. News and World Report ranked the Badger State K-12 system as the 8th best in the country.i But this rosy picture contradicts other key indicators that Wisconsin students are falling behind. So what’s going on? To get a clear look at public education in the Badger Sate requires a dive into the details.

Key Takeaways
• The academic proficiency data used by U.S. News & World Report to rank Wisconsin 8th is from the 2018-19 school year. Notably, this school year featured a transition in the governor’s mansion and was a full year before the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on Wisconsin schools.

• A sophisticated analysis of Wisconsin’s academic proficiency from 2018-19 puts Wisconsin in the middle of the pack. An Urban Institute analysis that controls for demographic factors finds Wisconsin falls out of the top ten in both math and reading on the NAEP scores.

• Academic proficiency has fallen significantly in Wisconsin since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in 2020. Forward Exam scores fell by about 4 percentage points in reading and 5 percentage points in math.

• Chronic absenteeism in Wisconsin schools reached new heights in the most recent school year. The share of students not regularly showing up for class rose to 16% in 2020-21 school year—the highest in five years.

The Recent U.S. News & World Report Rankings
The core claim in question, that Wisconsin is ranked 8th for Pre-K-12 public education, refers to Wisconsin’s placement in the U.S. New & World Report Pre-K-12 rankings for 2022.ii In the previous ranking released in 2018, Wisconsin’s schools were ranked 16th , meaning the state shot up 10 places. While this would doubtless be encouraging news if it were credible, there is recent to question where Wisconsin sits on the list.

The biggest issue with the rankings is in the use of raw scores on the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP). As a national norm-referenced test, the NAEP is arguably the best tool for making interstate comparisons, but one must be careful when simply using the raw numbers, which U.S. News does for eighth grade reading and math. On these metrics, Wisconsin is ranked 6th and 4th respectively. Just as in WILL’s Apples to Apples report,iii where we note that demographic factors must be taken into account in determining how well a school is doing, they must also be taken into account when ranking state performance. Unfortunately, factors like poverty, race, and English Language Learner status (ELL) matter in school performance. Low and minority students, on average, perform worse on exams for any number of reasons. These factors must be controlled for to make serious comparisons.

Fortunately, the Urban Institute has such a ranking.iv After controlling for age, race, disability status, family income and ELL, Wisconsin falls to 14th from 4th in math and from 6th to 21st in reading. The Urban Institute also provides a chart of the overall trend in ranking for each state. The unadjusted ranking is in yellow, while the demographically-adjusted ranking is in blue. The chart shows that there isn’t much of a discernible trend in performance—if anything, it’s the opposite of improvement.

The status quo solution for public school education has been to simply provide more money, which research has found bears little relationship to student performance. In order for Wisconsin school districts to actually be some of the best in the nation, Wisconsin needs to sever the connection to the preferred policies of teacher unions and the public-school establishment, who fight competition from every alternative option. Instead, Wisconsin education policies must empower parents to make the best choice for their son or daughter, which may include a traditional public school.

Wisconsin needs robust alternative options that enable every student in the state to attend the school that best meets their needs. This includes opening up private-school choice to middle- class families who can’t afford private-school options, and a more open charter school sector that ensures public-school options exist in every corner of the state. Achieving these goals won’t be easy, but the information here shows that the state can ill afford complacency when it comes to education policy.

The data clearly indicate that being able to read is not a requirement for graduation at (Madison) East, especially if you are black or Hispanic”

2017: West High Reading Interventionist Teacher’s Remarks to the School Board on Madison’s Disastrous Reading Results 

Madison’s taxpayer supported K-12 school district, despite spending far more than most, has long tolerated disastrous reading results.

My Question to Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers on Teacher Mulligans and our Disastrous Reading Results

“An emphasis on adult employment”

Wisconsin Public Policy Forum Madison School District Report[PDF]

WEAC: $1.57 million for Four Wisconsin Senators

Friday Afternoon Veto: Governor Evers Rejects AB446/SB454; an effort to address our long term, disastrous reading results

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No When A Stands for Average: Students at the UW-Madison School of Education Receive Sky-High Grades. How Smart is That?