By Isral DeBruin, Colleston Morgan and Spencer Schien
This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Visit milwaukeenns.org.
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Milwaukee parents deserve to know the score when it comes to school quality and student achievement, but the scoreboard is broken exactly when we need it most.
Wisconsin publishes annual report cards for each school receiving public tax dollars, including Milwaukee Public Schools, public charter schools and private schools that accept state-funded tuition vouchers. These report cards are meant to be a scoreboard, helping parents and other stakeholders keep track of school quality.
State education officials recently released the first report cards since the pandemic, providing an initial citywide picture of how COVID-19 impacted student academic performance. That picture isn’t a pretty one: More than 80% of Milwaukee students scored below grade level in reading and math.
And yet – more than 70% of Milwaukee schools received a report card rating of “meeting expectations” or better. How? Unfortunately, state leaders made two critical choices that broke the scoreboard, making it easier for schools to earn deceptively high ratings even as student achievement dropped.
State officials moved the goal posts
Just weeks before report cards were published, the Department of Public Instruction, or DPI, quietly and without explanation or public input changed the scoring rules. By moving the goal posts, DPI made it easier for schools to earn higher ratings.
A new analysis from Milwaukee nonprofit City Forward Collective found this change gave 74 Milwaukee schools better ratings than they otherwise would have received, including 42% of schools operated by MPS, 27% of charter schools and 19% of private schools. MPS also benefited on its district-wide report card, improving its rating from “meets few expectations” to “meets expectations” even though its actual score went down slightly.
State law puts extreme emphasis on students’ academic growth
This last-minute change comes on top of a problematic law signed by former Gov. Scott Walker that grades most Milwaukee schools on a deceptive curve. Under the law, schools serving high poverty communities get nine times more credit for student growth (how much students grow from one year to the next) than they do for student achievement (whether students are on grade level). In wealthier suburban communities, student growth and achievement are weighted more equally.
To be fair, students from low-income households are more likely to come into school performing below grade level as a result of the structural inequities they face. A high-quality school that serves many such students must be especially good at helping them get caught up – a process that generally takes more than one year. For this reason, it makes sense for report cards to measure both growth and achievement.
However, weighting growth at nine times the importance of achievement – and only for a subset of the state’s poorest students – makes Wisconsin an extreme outlier. It’s also inequitable, giving parents a misleading picture of how well students are being served by a given school. Parents should be able to assume a school rated “meets expectations” is preparing most students to meet grade-level expectations. That is not currently the case.
How can we fix it?
State policymakers should consider the following actions to ensure that parents have a scoreboard that provides clear and accurate information about how students and schools are doing:
• Restore the report card rating scale that was in place up until this year. Ensure that any future changes to the report card are made in a transparent and publicly accountable manner by a) creating an accountability commission that includes parents, educators and other stakeholders; and b) adopting any changes through the administrative rule making process typically used by DPI, which mandates public input, sets out a timeline that prevents last-minute changes and includes legislative oversight.
• Change state law to reduce the extreme weight that report cards give to student growth over achievement. Wisconsin should align itself more closely with the majority of states, which weigh growth at 1-2 times the importance of achievement.
This matters a lot – especially now
Right now, the scoreboard says most Milwaukee kids are losing. Even though some schools received higher report card ratings based on the easier scoring criteria, at least four out of five Milwaukee students are not performing at grade level. Black students, students with disabilities and students from low-income households are all disproportionately represented in this group.
These are uncomfortable truths, but to quote James Baldwin, “Nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
More than ever, parents, caregivers and other stakeholders in our K-12 education ecosystem need to be able to understand exactly how Milwaukee students and schools are performing. State officials must fix the scoreboard so parents can make smart choices for their children and hold those in power accountable for ensuring our city’s students and schools recover and thrive.