Gaps in Forward Exam Data Means Wisconsin Flying Blind on Student Achievement

Students in Wisconsin, and around the nation, have dealt with two school years that were largely disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. Despite ample evidence that reopening schools was safe, teachers unions fought tooth-and-nail to keep doors shut; forcing students into virtual learning. The release of Wisconsin’s test score data for the 2020-21 school year should have provided an opportunity for us to assess how far these choices have put kids behind, but problems with the data will make that all but impossible.

Wisconsin law allows parents to opt-out of testing requirements. Statewide, more than 13% of students did not take the Forward Exam for the 2020-21 school year. Of about 355,000 potential test takers in grades 3-8, 47,000 did not participate. This represents an increase of 766% over previous years. The reasons for such high non-participation are many. Some parents may simply have been afraid to send their kids into a school building while COVID rates were still high. In Milwaukee, news stories highlight that over 3,000 students, who have been forced to do virtual learning, are not attending school. While a more thorough analysis will be needed to say this with certainty, it appears that school districts that stayed virtual had significantly higher rates of opt out than did school districts that reopened their doors. In Milwaukee Public Schools—depicted in the figure below (red) along with the statewide opt out rates (blue) had a staggering 55% rate of students not taking the exam. The rate of non-testing in the neighboring Waukesha district—which did reopen in the Fall of 2020—was only 9%. The chart below shows the opt-out rate in both MPS and the state as a whole over the past four school years with data.

Opt-outs were also significantly lower in choice schools than in public schools in Milwaukee. About 20% of choice students opted out.  While still a huge increase over previous years, it’s a far cry from the majority found in public schools.  

The state includes students who opted out in the overall percentage who are not proficient.  In the numbers below, we take the more charitable approach of leaving aside the opt-out students and only considering those who took the exam. While it’s difficult to know what can be taken from these numbers, it is interesting to note that statewide proficiency in English fell by nearly 4 percentage points, from 41.5% to 38.8%.  Similar drops occurred in math.  On the surface, proficiency in Milwaukee’s parental choice program continues to exceed the results for other low-income students around the state. Proficiency rates in English were about 17% in choice schools compared to 11% in Milwaukee Public Schools.  Mathematics scores were closer, though still with an edge to choice schools by a small margin. Of course, the continued low proficiency of schools across the board should be of concern.  

Student performance attending private schools around the state was very close to statewide averages for low-income students in both English and Math.  The table below depicts the findings for Milwaukee. We will work on an Apples to Apples analysis as we have in previous years to place schools on a more level playing field based on their demographic profiles, though the data limitations will make that especially challenging.  

It is possible that the large number of students not taking the test is actually masking the extent of educational decline that has been seen across the state. Kids whose families were more disconnected from education during the pandemic may be even more likely to have lost ground.   However, the lack of data makes it impossible to know for sure. Because of these issues, parents and policymakers essentially are facing two consecutive school years where little will be known about the success or failings of our students.   

Regaining ground lost during the COVID-19 pandemic may be one of the biggest challenges we’ve faced in education in recent history.  At the same time, massive amounts of resources have been devoted to schools from both the state and federal level to hopefully aid in meeting this challenge. But with some schools choosing to use these federal funds for sporting venues, whether the resources of being effectively allocated remains to be seen. At a time like this, it is vital that we have sound data on where schools are starting from so that we can effectively allocate resources and hold schools accountable for results.   

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