By LaKeshia N. Myers
When it comes to measuring student achievement or the success of a school, most people look to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s (DPI) school and district report cards. According to the Wisconsin DPI, “as part of the state accountability system, the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) produces report cards for every publicly funded school and district in Wisconsin. These report cards include data on multiple indicators for multiple years across four Priority Areas (Achievement, Growth, Target Group Outcomes, and On-track to Graduation). In addition, the report cards provide course and program participation information for grades 9-12 for public schools and districts” (Wisconsin DPI, 2022).
But have you ever wondered how those numbers are generated? What constitutes a school that Significantly Exceeds Expectations (five star), Exceeds Expectations (four star), Meets Expectations (three star), Meets Few Expectations (two star), or Fails to Meet Expectations (one star)?
If you dig a little deeper into the data, you will learn that a significant portion of the data used to derive these numbers comes from the Wisconsin Forward Exam. According to DPI, “the exam is designed to gauge how well students are doing in relation to the Wisconsin Academic Standards. These standards outline what students should know and be able to do in order to be college and career ready” (Wisconsin DPI, 2022). The Forward Exam has been held as the standard bearer of achievement for our state for many years.
But, data, as with most statistical processes, can be skewed. One such factor for this skew is the fact that parents can opt their children out of standardized testing. You read that correctly—parents can opt their children out.
The Wisconsin legislature has continued to play both sides of the fence regarding standardized testing, with proponents arguing there must be quantitative measurement of achievement and many parents (and students) decrying assessment overload. Wisconsinites saw an astounding eight thousand students opt-out of the Badger Exam (the precursor to Forward) in 2015. This number was so alarming officials at DPI warned that if too many families began to opt-out of testing, results would become unreliable.
Imagine that, an unreliable standardized test.
As there are continued conversations surrounding the dissolution of Milwaukee Public Schools, parental comparisons between school districts, clout and claims to be made regarding which districts are “the best”—we need to be reminded that one’s best is only as good as the students who are testing on one given day. If a small school district of 5,000 students has 200 opt-outs versus a larger district of 71,000 having the same number of opt-outs, data could skew in opposite directions for both districts.
Testing only tells one part of the story.