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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Wisconsin standardized test scores drop, but lower participation makes comparisons difficult

Signs in a Marvin Pratt Elementary School classroom explain what testing scores like 'proficient' and 'basic' mean.
Emily Files
Signs in a Marvin Pratt Elementary School classroom explain what testing scores like 'proficient' and 'basic' mean.

The latest round of statewide standardized testing shows major declines in English and math proficiency. But the data isn’t complete, because many students didn’t take the tests during the pandemic-disrupted school year. That lower participation rate counts against the overall results.

For example, in spring 2019, 41% of Wisconsin third through eighth graders in publicly-funded schools were proficient in English Language Arts on the Forward exam. That year, almost 99% of students took the test.

This past spring, only 87% of students took the test. The students who didn’t participate are counted as “not proficient.” With that in mind, the number of students proficient in English fell seven points from 2019 to 2021 to 34%.

Math scores were impacted even more. Forward exam scores for third through eighth graders dropped from 43.4% proficient in 2019 to 33.6% in 2021.

Statewide standardized testing did not take place in spring 2020 due the pandemic. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction requested a waiver for standardized testing in 2021, but the U.S. Department of Education did not grant it.

On a press call Wednesday, DPI officials emphasized how difficult it is to compare this data to past years.

"During this time of unprecedented challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Wisconsin’s students learned differently," said DPI Communications Director Abigail Swetz. "District and state participation rates were different from other years, and proficiency scores look different. That is not surprising considering the extraordinary times of the COVID-19 pandemic and the stressors and challenges it brought and still brings with it."

The test results are even harder to judge in a district like Milwaukee Public Schools, where fewer than half of students participated. Students must be in-person to take the tests, and many MPS students were still learning virtually last spring.

MPS ELA proficiency scores fell from 18.6% in 2019 to 7.3% in 2021. Math proficiency dropped from 16.2% to 4.2%.

"While this [state assessment data] only reflects a portion of our students, we are still able to determine areas for growth," MPS administrators said in a statement. "Because only a portion of students were able to be assessed, we cannot compare to other data from previous years."

On the Wednesday call, DPI leaders were reluctant to say what the test scores show about learning loss during the pandemic.

"I'm hesitant to say they lost anything because kids are continually learning," said mathematics consultant Mary Mooney. "So the trick is to figure out what they do know and build from there."

DPI officials said the state test scores provide one data point for schools to use as they bring students back to classrooms on a more full-time basis this school year.

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Emily does education reporting as well as general news editing at WUWM.
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