Will Flanders, Research Director

The results for the 2019 administration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have just been released. The NAEP is given to samples of students around the country on a biannual basis and provides the best method for comparing performance among students in different states. Unfortunately for Wisconsin, the story is yet another riff on a tired tune: student achievement is largely stagnant and wide racial achievement gaps persist.

Overall, achievement in Wisconsin remains relatively flat. Scores have moved no more than a point in either direction over the past decade. In some ways, this is not a bad thing. Wisconsin students remain above the national average among eighth graders in reading and math. But there is some cause for concern. Wisconsin’s fourth grade students used to exceed the national average in these areas as well but are now on par with the rest of the country. It appears other states are “catching up” to Wisconsin.

Some might say that this is a result of cuts in Wisconsin’s spending, but the facts don’t support this. The chart below shows Wisconsin’s per pupil spending since 2013 along with the NAEP scores. Inflation-adjusted spending has increased while NAEP scores stagnate.

Source: Nation’s Report Card, Wisconsin Overview. www.nationsreportcard.gov

But far more concerning is the achievement gap between white students and African American students in the state. The chart below shows the states with the largest achievement gap between these groups. The chart depicts eighth grade math and the results are generally the same across subjects — Wisconsin is doing the worst in the country. This is, unfortunately, not a new problem. Along with many others, I have written about this achievement gap on past iterations of the NAEP. In her first State of Wisconsin Education Address, Superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor called this achievement gap a “crisis.” But despite years of hand-wringing Wisconsin seems to have made little progress.

The persistent achievement gap is particularly problematic because it represents the situation prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Differences in access to supplementary materials, tutoring, and even basic internet access tend to fall along racial and economic lines. At a time when so much education is being conducted virtually, some research has suggested that the pandemic will serve to further exacerbate these gaps.

If closing the achievement gap were easy, no doubt far more progress would be made. But there are solutions with a proven track record of success that many public-school proponents are reticent to try. Wisconsin’s choice and charter schools significantly outperform traditional public schools according to a growing body of research. While the reasons behind this greater success are myriad, I would argue the key is that school choice allows families to choose the school that best fits the needs of their child, rather than a “one-size-fits-all” option determined by ZIP code.

During the pandemic, policymakers can help to ensure that all kids have options available by funding students directly rather than using the antiquated pass-through of the school district. In this manner, low-income families will be better able to access the sort of resources that will help them avoid falling further behind until we get back to a more traditional learning environment.

If the education proponents like the supposedly ‘pro-kid’ Governor are truly focused on reducing the achievement gap, they will move beyond the interests of the teachers union and be open to policies that work. But given their track record of opposing efforts to provide options to low-income families, I won’t hold my breath.

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