Wisconsin education officials wrongly label Black students as more ‘at-risk’ “We combed through the dropout prediction formulas for many states and fortunately Wisconsin was the only one where we found race was being considered”

Dan Lennington and Will Flanders

Encouraging high-school graduation is a policy that garners broad support, as it paves the way for higher wages and a better quality of life. In 2015, bipartisan majorities passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, a law aimed at reducing dropout rates. Since then, dropout rates have declined about 13%. But now a new twist: education bureaucrats in Wisconsin are taking a misguided approach by injecting race into dropout calculations. This new policy wrongly assumes that a student’s race is a dropout risk factor, perpetuating harmful stereotypes.

To identify students at-risk of dropping out, most school districts employ something called an “Early Warning System.” This tool is a relatively simple computer program that takes risk factors, weighs them, and then labels some students at-risk, which triggers personalized intervention strategies to help them graduate.

So, what is a dropout risk factor? It’s common sense: attendance, behavior, academic performance, and personal obstacles (homelessness and number of address changes, for example). Students ranking low in two or three of these are identified for extra support.

Simple enough. But commonsense isn’t enough for some schools. Wisconsin is adding another risk factor: race.

Wisconsin’s Dropout Early Warning System, or DEWS, uses race to predict how likely Wisconsin students are to graduate from high school. So if a student is Black, that’s a dropout risk in the same way as a student who is frequently absent.

In practice, however, adding race doesn’t really work. According to a recent investigation by Chalkbeat and The Markup, nonprofit, nonpartisan news organizations, DEWS generated highly inaccurate data, predicting many more Black and Hispanic students would drop out than actually did.

Wisconsin’s own internal validation test showed that the system was wrong almost 75% of the time. This leads to several negative consequences. Decades of education researchprove that students perceived as likely to be low achieving by teachers, even at random, learn less than students for whom expectations are higher. Moreover, distributing resources based on these wrong assumptions will invariably take those resources away from other students who actually do need the help.

Apart from wondering why Wisconsin would use a factor that led to inaccurate results, you may also wonder whether using race to predict drop-out risk is, well, a bit racist.

When asked about that, Wisconsin’s education spokeswoman Abigail Swetz explained, “The reality is that we live in a white supremacist society, and the education system is systemically racist.” 

By artificially injecting “race” as a predictor, Wisconsin education officials are not actually measuring dropout risks. They are making a political statement about their belief in the theory of systemic racism. Adherents to this hold that all racial disparities are caused by racism. Therefore, if more Blacks than whites are dropping out of school, then the cause must be racism. So it makes perfect sense to add race as a dropout factor, since race is the real reason why kids are dropping out.

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