Wisconsin's School Report Cards See Gains: School Improvement or New Formula?

Nov 21, 2017

The majority of Wisconsin’s students are performing at or above expectations, according to the latest round of state report cards released by the Department of Public Instruction on Tuesday. But, DPI officials warn that although new scores paint a brighter picture for schools across the state, in some cases they may not be an accurate reflection of what’s happening in classrooms.

All of Wisconsin’s 422 public school districts receive annual accountability scores – as does each individual school.

The state takes four measurements: student achievement on state tests, growth in student performance, how well schools close achievement gaps between student subgroups, and how well schools prepare kids for life after high school. This also includes data about graduation and attendance rates.

Based on those measurements, the state gives each district and school an “accountability rating,” ranking them on what’s essentially a five-star scale – one being the lowest, and five the highest.

This round of report cards, which illustrates learning in the 2016-17 school year, shows the majority of districts and schools scored at or above three stars – which would mean they qualify as “meeting” or “exceeding expectations.” This was the case for 82 percent of public and private schools, as well as more than 95 percent of the state’s public school districts.

But, DPI officials say this could be a math issue.

Two years ago, state lawmakers mandated a change in the way DPI calculates growth. And since growth is a year-to-year measure, this is the first year those calculations would show up in school scores.

That change in the growth calculation caused scores for some schools to fluctuate significantly higher. So, DPI officials say it’s not clear whether those higher scores accurately reflect improvements at the schools, or just statistical volatility.

This math may have affected scores for 162 schools and 24 districts; the situation has been flagged on those report cards for students and parents.

LOOK: Find your local school’s report card on the DPI website

Another key takeaway from this round of report cards: no districts received failing scores.

That’s good news for folks in the Racine Unified School District, who had been at risk of their second failing mark in a row. As of 2015, any district with two consecutive failing marks qualifies for the “Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program,” or OSPP, a state law outlining the process for creating a new governance structure for underperforming schools.

Previously, Milwaukee Public Schools had the most infamous history under OSPP. After failing marks in 2015, MPS officials spent most of 2016 fighting what many public school proponents saw as the potential “takeover” of their district. But, after quite a bit of drama, the possibility faded away when MPS received higher marks on its next round of report cards – just like Racine did this year.

This is the second year of the current report card format, which includes the aforementioned changes to growth calculations. 2016 marked the the return to report card grades after a one-year hiatus, when Wisconsin transitioned from using the Badger Exam to the Forward Exam for statewide testing.

About 140 private voucher schools did not receive ratings this year, because they did not provide the state with sufficient data. This marks the second year schools in the Milwaukee, Racine and statewide parental choice programs received report cards, but the first year the state gave them accountability ratings. That’s because the state needs two years’ worth of data to calculate school growth.dpi

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