STUDY: Missing Forward Exam Data May Point to Even Lower Student Proficiency

Published on: Nov 1, 2021

WILL examines missing data to project true proficiency rates of “lost kids”

The News: A new policy brief from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) finds that the large number of students who didn’t take the 2020-21 Forward Exam may have pushed the already low proficiency rates even a bit lower. The new report, Lost Kids: Exploring the Missing Results in Wisconsin’s Report Card, identifies who is underrepresented in the 2020-21 Forward Exam results and reveals why the lack of student participation in 2021 likely masks even worse results.

The Quote: WILL Research Director, Will Flanders, said, “Recently released Forward Exam results mask a growing problem in Wisconsin education. The student populations that have traditionally struggled with the exam are underrepresented in the data. For anyone concerned about the overall fall in proficiency rates of Wisconsin students, the reality may be worse.”

The Findings: The recent release of 2020-21 Forward Exam results was largely characterized by gaps in the data due to a record number of students not taking the test. But those gaps tell a story. WILL Research Director, Will Flanders, examines the missing students and what their past performance could reveal about the true proficiency rates of Wisconsin students during the pandemic.

  • The number of public-school students, statewide, that didn’t take the Forward Exam jumped from 1.4% in 2019 to 13% in 2021. But it is who, and where, those students are that sheds some light on what the data can, and cannot, tell us.
    • More than half of the students in Wisconsin’s two largest school districts did not take the Forward Exam. In Milwaukee and Madison, over 50% of students did not participate in the exam.
    • The data issues are so bad that DPI recommends ignoring that data from 1/3 of all Wisconsin school districts. DPI would recommend against using the data from 147 of the 422 districts in the state (34.8%).
    • African American students are underrepresented in the data. The raw number of African American students taking the exam fell by 14,240 from 2019 to 2021. This represents a decline of 33.2%.
    • Low-income students are underrepresented in the data. The raw number of low- income students taking the exam fell by 38,085. This represents a decline of 10.7%.
  • Public school students’ proficiency rates in math and reading declined by 4 percentages points, but the true proficiency rates are likely a bit lower. Even excluding non-test takers from the assessment, record-low proficiency levels occurred for all students. For years, state test data has revealed that low-income students, African American students, and students with disabilities have struggled the most with the Forward Exam. And this year’s data indicates that a large portion of those who didn’t take this year’s test fall into these categories.
  • WILL’s model analysis suggests this year’s public school student exam results are likely masking additional proficiency declines. This is particularly true for low-income and African American students whose proficiency was already at only 38% in English and Math. Under the model, student proficiency is lowered by at least 1 percentage point.
  • Despite gaps in the data, there is abundant evidence Wisconsin public school students are not learning at acceptable levels. Too many students cannot read at grade level, are not leaving the public school system with proficiency in math and English, and are not graduating from high school.

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