NOTICE: Wisconsin school reports distort the truth

(Photo by Wes Tank from TankThink)

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(Top to bottom) Isral DeBruin, Colleston Morgan and Spencer Schien

Parents in Milwaukee deserve to know the score when it comes to school quality and student achievement, but the scoreboard is broken exactly when we need it most.

Wisconsin publishes annual newsletters for every publicly funded school, including Milwaukee public schools, public charter schools, and private schools that accept state-funded tuition vouchers. These newsletters are meant to be a dashboard, helping parents and other stakeholders to monitor the quality of the school.

State education officials recently released the first report cards since the pandemic, providing a city-wide first picture of the impact of COVID-19 on students’ academic performance. This picture is not pretty: more than 80% of Milwaukee’s students performed below grade in reading and math.

And yet, more than 70 percent of schools in Milwaukee received a rating of “meet expectations” or better. How? ‘Or’ What? Sadly, heads of state made two critical choices that shattered the scoreboard, making it easier for schools to achieve deceptively high marks even as student scores declined.

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State officials have moved the goal posts

Just weeks before the school reports were published, the Department of Public Education, or DPI, quietly and without explanation or input from the public changed the grading rules. By moving the goalposts, DPI has made it easier for schools to achieve higher marks.

A new analysis from the nonprofit City Forward Collective of Milwaukee found that this change gave 74 schools in Milwaukee better grades than they would otherwise have received, including 42% of schools operated by MPS, 27% of schools. charter and 19% from private schools. MPS also benefited from its district-wide report card, improving its score from “meets low expectations” to “meets expectations” even though its actual score has declined slightly.

State law emphasizes the academic growth of students

The last-minute change comes on top of a problematic law signed by former Gov. Scott Walker that puts most Milwaukee schools on a deceptive curve. By law, schools serving very poor communities get nine times more credit for student growth (how many students grow from year to year) than for student achievement (whether students are at school level). In wealthier suburbs, student growth and achievement are weighted more evenly.

To be fair, students from low-income households are more likely to enter school below grade because of the structural inequalities they face. A high-quality school that receives large numbers of these students needs to be particularly good at helping them catch up – a process that usually takes over a year. For this reason, it makes sense that newsletters measure both growth and achievement.

However, weighting growth at nine times the importance of achievement – and only for a subset of the state’s poorest students – makes Wisconsin an extreme outlier. It is also unfair, because it gives parents a misleading image of the quality of services offered to students by a given school. Parents should be able to assume that a school rated as ‘meets expectations’ prepares most students to meet grade level expectations. This is not currently the case.

How can we fix it?

State policymakers should consider the following measures to ensure parents have a dashboard that provides clear and accurate information on student and school performance:

  • Restore the report card grading scale that was in place until this year. Ensure that any future edits to the newsletter are made in a transparent and publicly accountable manner by a) creating an accountability committee that includes parents, educators and other stakeholders; and b) adopt any changes through the business rule-making process typically used by DPI, which requires public input, sets a timeline that prevents last-minute changes, and includes legislative oversight.
  • Change state law to reduce the extreme weight that report cards give to student growth over achievement. Wisconsin is expected to align more closely with the majority of states, which weigh 1-2 times growth over importance of accomplishments.

It matters a lot – especially now

Right now, the scorecard says most of the kids in Milwaukee are losing. Even though some schools received higher report card scores based on the easiest scoring criteria, at least four in five students in Milwaukee are not performing academically. Black students, students with disabilities, and students from low-income households are all disproportionately represented in this group.

These are uncomfortable truths, but to quote James Baldwin, “Nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

More than ever, parents, caregivers and other stakeholders in our K-12 education ecosystem need to be able to accurately understand how Milwaukee students and schools are performing. State officials need to fix the dashboard so parents can make smart choices for their children and hold those in power accountable for ensuring our city’s students and schools recover and thrive.

Isral DeBruin, Colleston Morgan and Spencer Schien are on staff at City Forward Collective, a Milwaukee nonprofit dedicated to eliminating inequalities in education and ensuring that every child has the opportunity to attend a school in high quality. For more information visit www.cityforwardcollective.org.

About Marc Womack

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