WILL Blog | Dr. Flanders: MPS isn’t the only district struggling to prepare students for college

Contrary to popular belief, low-performing schools are not just a Milwaukee problem, they are a statewide problem.  Too many children – especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds – are falling through the cracks of a sub-standard education system.  A recent report released by the University of Wisconsin System represents an opportunity to highlight this.

Based on a law passed last year by Representative Jagler, the University System was tasked with tracking the number of students who needed remedial courses in math and English. Students in need of remediation are identified based on scores on the Wisconsin Placement tests combined with several other measures (high school GPA, ACT scores, etc.). Placement in remedial courses indicates students who are adjudged to have been inadequately prepared for college-level material through their high school course work.  These courses are taken before entry-level college courses in the subject, and do not count for credit despite having a tuition cost.

According to Rep. Jagler, “overall, 18% of Wisconsin kids entering UW programs needed remedial math and 6% needed remedial English.”  Mike Ford, professor of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, concluded that: “Grads of schools with higher percentages of minority, low-income, ELL (English language learners) and IEP (special education) students need more college help.”

It might be easy to blame these poor number on the poor performance of the Milwaukee Public Schools.   With its large numbers of poor, minority, and special needs students, MPS is always the elephant in the room when it comes to discussions of statewide performance.  And while things are not good in MPS—where two high schools had more than 75% of students needing math remediation—all is not rosy outside of Milwaukee either.  The report shows that schools outside of Milwaukee are also struggling to prepare students – especially African Americans – for college.

An average of 23% of graduates from high schools (outside of Milwaukee) needed remediation in math. 12 high schools (again, outside Milwaukee) had remediation rates above 40%, meaning that 4 of 10 graduates who attended a state university were not judged to have the baseline knowledge for college-level mathematics.  Johnson Creek High School, located in a small town between Milwaukee and Madison, even exceeded MPS in the need for remedial math courses at a rate of 80%. These low numbers say nothing about students who don’t go to Wisconsin colleges, for whom remediation needs would likely be even higher.

The struggle to adequately prepare students for college is even greater among African American graduates.  I conducted an econometric analysis of the remediation data on the percentage of the students in the school who were African American (outside of Milwaukee). Even after controlling for the number of students who are impoverished through free-and-reduced lunch data and the size of the graduating class, the percentage of African Americans in the high school has a strong, significant impact on the need for remediation.  A one percent increase in the number of African American students in a high school leads to a .3 percent increase in the percentage of students receiving remedial classes, on average.  Put another way, the schools with the most African American students struggle the most to prepare their students for college.

The results of this analysis appear in the table below.


Unfortunately, these issues are not exclusive to Wisconsin.  Across the country, college readiness is a concern, as are finding ways to help students from minority backgrounds achieve on par with their peers.   So what is the alternative?  There is extensive evidence that school choice programs, like the WPCP, can significantly improve student outcomes.  In a comprehensive study of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program—which is predominately African American—John Witte and colleagues (2014) found that participation in the program significantly improved student scores in mathematics.  More specific to college readiness, Cowen and colleagues (2014) found that students who participated in the MPCP were more likely to persist in college than similarly situated peers. It is entirely possible that an expanded statewide program could result in similar improvements.

While the problems of African Americans in Wisconsin are often focused on Milwaukee, this data shows that the problem extends far beyond Wisconsin’s largest city.  Expanding access to high-quality private schools for children from disadvantaged families is a critical pathway for keeping Wisconsin at the forefront of education.

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