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

New Criteria, Higher Marks for MPS on State Report Card

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MPS has improved its state report card category from Fails to Meet Expectations to Meets Few Expectations in the 2014-15 school year.

new set of state report cards confirmed Thursday that the Milwaukee Public Schooldistrict is improving. But the math has changed, breeding skepticism about how much improvement is actually taking place.

Districts across Wisconsin and each of their individual schools are ranked in one of five categories: 

  • Significantly Exceeds Expectations
  • Exceeds Expectations
  • Meets Expectations
  • Meets Few Expectations
  • Fails to Meet Expectations

For the first time this year, each category also has a corresponding star rating. Failing schools earn one star; schools in the top tier earn five.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, MPS boosted its rating from "Fails to Meet Expectations" to "Meets Few Expectations" in the 2014-15 school year.

One-third of individual MPS schools also shifted up in performance category. 

Find your district's or school's report card: search the 2015-16 DPI database here.

These latest report cards are the first since the 2013-14 school year. Legislators paused the release of marks for 2014-15, due to fear that a change in state tests would significantly decrease student scores.

Wisconsin students have taken three different standardized tests each of the last three years: the former Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination (WKCE), which morphed into the Badger Exam in spring 2015, and has now been replaced by the Forward Exam.

DPI released results of the most recent Forward Exam earlier this fall. In Milwaukee, scores showed only one out of every five MPS students is considered “proficient” in English, science and social studies, while just 15 percent are proficient in math.

Despite those low performance scores, MPS and one-third of its schools attained higher report card ratings this year. And it could be due in part to a new weighting system.

The state judges districts and schools in four priority areas:

  • Student achievement on annual standardized tests
  • Student growth
  • Closing gaps, which measures performance by student subgroups against their peers across the state
  • On-Track to Graduation and Postsecondary Readiness, which looks at attendance and graduation rates, as well as two test performance measures widely recognized as good “benchmarks” for future success – third grade English and eighth grade math

Report cards also reflect data for test participation, absenteeism and dropout rates.
For the first time this year, those measurements are also weighted to account for the impact of student poverty. The higher the percentage of economically disadvantaged students in a district or school, the more weight is placed on student growth, rather than achievement.

Critics might argue this system unfairly characterizes poor-performing districts or schools as “improving,” rather than reflecting the actual student achievement taking place.  

Laura Pinsonneault, DPI’s director of accountability, says the effect of an additional poverty calculation is neither right nor wrong – it’s just a different way state policymakers have decided to value the data.

“There is a correlation between poverty and performance – we don’t want that correlation to exist,” Pinsonneault says. “Policy decisions made in the last biennial budget are trying to kind of break that relationship, because as much as people may say, ‘this isn’t reporting things the way they actually are,’ others say, ‘it’s not fair because these are things that are out of our control.’”

“It’s really an interesting demonstration of policy decisions that can be posed, and different approaches to try to grapple with some of those policy realities,” she adds.

Both the Department of Public Instruction and MPS say because of the differences in calculations between 2013-14 report cards and the current version, a direct comparison cannot be made.

"We believe these report cards better reflect the performance in our schools," MPS Superintendent Darienne Driver said, in a statement. "We still have significant work to do, but we are headed in the right direction."

According to a law passed in 2015, any district earning marks in the "Fails to Meet Expectations" category two years in a row, becomes eligible for state intervention in the form of an initiative dubbed the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program.

MPS had been considered "failing" on its 2013-14 report card, and had been wrestling with state leaders about the possibility of being targeted for OSPP. Improvement on this year's report card means the district is no longer eligible for that program.

This year also marks the first time schools in the Milwaukee, Racine and Wisconsin Parental Choice programs submitted data for report cards. However, those schools did not receive scores or ratings. DPI says that’s because two years of data is needed for comparisons of growth and improvement.

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