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

Wisconsin Students Struggle To Make Gains On State Tests

Emily Files
Reading materials in a fifth grade classroom at Marvin Pratt Elementary School in Milwaukee.

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction released standardized test results for public school students Thursday, and there’s not much to celebrate.

Students’ mastery of both English language arts and math declined compared to the previous year, with just about 40% of students proficient in each. Students were making progress in math previously, but that trend did not continue this year. English results have declined for a couple years.

>> Explore test data for Wisconsin school districts on the DPI website

The standardized tests were administered to about 600,000 Wisconsin students toward the end of the 2018-2019 school year.  

In a phone call with reporters Wednesday, DPI student assessment director Viji Somasundaram emphasized that Wisconsin has high standards when it comes to labeling a student 'proficient.'

"The new standards that we adopted five or six years before are much more rigorous than the previous standards," Somasundaram said.

Milwaukee Public School students remain more than 20 points behind the state average in math and reading. Superintendent Keith Posley wants to close the gap in five years.

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

"I absolutely think it’s possible," Posley said in a July interview with WUWM. "And if you look at that, that’s a 4% increase every year for five years, right? I think that is something that our young people are very capable of doing and will do."

But there was no 4% gain this year. In fact, MPS third through eighth graders experienced a slight decrease in English proficiency, to less than 18.6%. Math scores remained stagnant, with 16.2% meeting standards. Posley was not available for comment by deadline for this report. 

MPS serves a high concentration of black, Hispanic, low income and English learner students. Those groups lag their peers statewide, and Wisconsin’s infamous black-white achievement gap persists.

For example, just 12% of black third graders are proficient in English, compared to 46% of white third graders. The gaps have narrowed slightly over the past two years, but that’s because white students are doing worse.

When asked what could be done to improve student achievement, DPI spokeswoman Elizabeth Tomev mentioned state funding. Wisconsin is increasing K-12 spending by about $570 million over the next two years.

"That’s an important down payment on the investments we need to make to provide the support that the students need," Tomev said. "So, we’re looking through everything and seeing where those needs are, to possibly adjust and make sure every child in Wisconsin has what they need when they need it."

There is one group of children that made gains in the latest assessments: private school choice students. The voucher programs serve mostly low-income students of color in Milwaukee and Racine. Those students made notable progress in math this year and last year, moving from 15.2% proficiency in 2016-17 to 17.8% in 2018-19.

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