Mandated K-12 Testing in Wisconsin: A System in Need of Reform

Mandated K-12 Testing in Wisconsin: A System in Need of Reform

By Mark C. Schug, Ph.D. and M. Scott Niederjohn, Ph.D.

Executive Summary

By law public schools in Wisconsin must administer a rigid, comprehensive set of tests.  In the fall of every school year students are tested in reading, math, language, science and social studies.  Test results from each district and each school are posted on the Internet, passed along to the federal government to comply with No Child Left Behind requirements and are made available to parents.  In an era where measurable student performance is essential, it is expected that Wisconsin’s elaborate system of testing will tell us how Wisconsin students are performing.  Unfortunately the testing required by Wisconsin state law is not very good.          

The purpose of state standards and state-mandated testing is to increase academic achievement.  Does Wisconsin’s elaborate system of testing advance this goal?  From every quarter the answer is a clear no.  That is the consensus of independent, third-party evaluators. Wisconsin’s massive testing program has come under fire from the U.S. Department of Education which said that Wisconsin testing failed to adequately evaluate the content laid out in the state’s own standards.  Further, a joint report issued by the independent Fordham Institute and the Northwest Evaluation Association performed a detailed evaluation of testing in every state and ranked Wisconsin 42nd in the nation.  The Fordham Institute gave Wisconsin’s testing a grade of “D-minus.”  

Perhaps even more troublesome is that many Wisconsin school districts find the testing system inadequate.  Over 68% of Wisconsin school districts that responded to a survey said they purchase additional testing to do what the state testing is supposed to do. These districts are well ahead of the state in understanding the importance of timely, rigorous testing.

This report lays out the thirty-year history of testing in Wisconsin and the criticism of the current testing requirement. It is the first of two reports to be issued regarding Wisconsin’s testing program.  The second report will show how a new approach to testing will not only meet the standards that parents, teachers and the public expect, but will also allow teachers and policy makers to use testing to actually increase the achievement of Wisconsin’s children.

Now is the time for Wisconsin to reform its state testing program.  In order to accomplish this, we recommend that the WKCE-CR testing regime should be replaced or significantly modified.  Testing students in the fall of the year makes it impossible to use test results in a timely manner for improving curriculum and instruction.  The state should move toward a testing program with computer-based scoring so that results could be obtained and used promptly.   

We further recommend that, given all the problems identified in this report with regard to state testing and standards, 2010 is not the right time to force Milwaukee choice schools into using state tests and state standards.  It would wiser to delay such a decision until state testing and standards have been significantly improved.


International comparisons of American students with students from other industrialized countries show that American students frequently score poorly on standardized tests. 1 American student’s score near the bottom of the testing pool on standardized tests in mathematics and science. And yet, the United States spends a great deal of money on education.  In 2004, average expenditure per student in the United States was $9,368 at the combined elementary and secondary levels, which was 42 percent higher than the average expenditure of $6,604 for the member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.2 

A similar pattern emerges for Wisconsin.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Wisconsin ranks 15th in the nation in terms of spending per pupil.3 According to the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance,4 Wisconsin school districts budgeted to spend about $9.94 billion in 2007-08, or $11,522 per student. That amount represents a 5.1 percent increase over per-pupil spending in 2006-07.  Since 1999, per-pupil spending in Wisconsin has grown an average of 4.0 percent per year.  

According to certain measures of achievement (ACT scores, for example), Wisconsin students perform well.  According to other measures, they perform poorly.  Wisconsin has been criticized by the U.S. Department of Education for inflating its claims regarding its proficiency levels.5 Moreover; test results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress reveal large gaps between achievement levels reached by white and African American students. Borsuk writes:6

The average reading ability for fourth- and eighth-grade black students in Wisconsin is the lowest of any state, and the reading achievement gap between black students and white students in Wisconsin continues to be the worst in the nation.   [See, posted September 26, 2007.]

In this report we’ll focus on how Wisconsin’s state testing system developed, what shortcomings exist and what improvements might be made for the future.

Early Wisconsin Assessment Programs

State testing in Wisconsin began somewhat innocuously in 1975 as an effort to get some sense of how well Wisconsin students were performing academically (here and throughout this section we follow summaries prepared by the Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau; see Collins,7 Merrifield,8 and the DPI9).  The stakes were low, test results were not widely distributed, and it was impossible to make meaningful comparisons between school districts.  

From 1975 until 1987, Wisconsin operated the Wisconsin Pupil Assessment Program.  Pupil Assessment tests were developed by the DPI for use in grades 4, 5, 8, 11, and 12 in reading, mathematics, writing, science, and social studies.  Another test used during this period was the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (CTBS); it was administered each year. 
Both the DPI tests and the CTBS were administered to randomly selected pupils in a group of school districts chosen according to geographic location, size, and grade enrollment. Results from the Wisconsin Pupil Assessment Program were published with summaries showing aggregate levels of student performance. Because only some districts were included in the testing populations, the results permitted no comprehensive comparisons among districts or between schools within districts. Nor could individual student performance be assessed. At times, Wisconsin Pupil Assessment Program reports did include recommended actions to improve learning, but such recommendations were necessarily quite general in nature.

From 1985 until 1991, the DPI provided a competency-based test (CBT) for use in measuring reading, language arts, and mathematics proficiency. Participation by school districts was voluntary, and participating districts could, with DPI approval, develop their own competency tests if they chose to do so. Participating districts were required to test all pupils each year in grades K through 5, once in grades 6 to 8, and once in grades 9 to 11. They were also required to release test results to students’ parents and to provide remedial services to students whose test scores did not meet district minimum standards.  District scores were reported to school boards so that boards might consider curriculum changes. Results were not publicized or reported to the DPI. 

State law today requires that all school districts administer a standardized reading test developed by the DPI.  From 1989 to 2005, Wisconsin used the Wisconsin Reading Comprehension Test (WRCT) to meet this requirement.  This test was designed to identify students in need of remedial instruction. 

These early assessment efforts focused on student achievement in basic skills and selected subjects. They provided information similar in some respects to information provided today by reports from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The results could alert districts and the public only to problems of a general sort, and they provided no basis for detailed analyses of strengths or weaknesses in particular programs, courses, or units of instruction.  Nor were the results associated with any system of incentives for students or educators.  It was not, in other words, a time of assessment for heightened levels of accountability.  Early testing in Wisconsin might be likened to a brief, annual physical exam that yields, in the end, a word or two of advice from a kindly family physician who suggests that, while you could afford to lose five pounds and exercise a little more, you seem more or less to be okay.

 The Development of Wisconsin’s Student Assessment System

In 1991, Wisconsin’s Legislature repealed previous requirements for CBT testing and DPI achievement testing in reading, language arts, and mathematics. These tests were to be replaced by a requirement that all school districts administer Wisconsin “knowledge and concepts” examinations (WKCE) in grades 8 and 10, beginning in 1993-94, and that they administer a fourth-grade knowledge and concepts examination, beginning in 1996-97. 
The new examinations were designed to measure students’ knowledge in mathematics, science, social studies, and reading and language arts.  These examinations were the heart of the program identified as the Wisconsin Student Assessment System (WSAS).  The WSAS system established that for each student in each area tested, scores were to be placed into one of four proficiency categories: minimal, basic, proficient, or advanced. Proficiency summaries (in percentage of students per category) were to be reported for all students who had been enrolled for a full academic year, regardless of disability. Scores were to be reported as percentile rankings, comparing each student’s performance to the performance of his or her peers, statewide and nationwide. 

Wisconsin Flirts with and Flees from High-Stakes Testing

In creating the WSAS, the Legislature acted in 1997 to confer “high stakes” status on Wisconsin’s curricular examinations, specifying that a student in grade 4 or 8 could not be promoted to the next grade level unless he or she scored at the level of basic or higher on the examination in question. Legislators soon had second thoughts, however; in 1999, in response to what some newspapers described as fierce parental opposition, the Legislature modified its commitment to high-stakes testing in a new law that required school boards, beginning in 2002-2003, to adopt written policies specifying district criteria for pupil promotions from grades 4 to 5 and grades 8 to 9. These criteria, according to the law, must address students’ scores on the grade 4 and grade 8 examinations, but no particular score was required by the state for promotion. In addition to addressing test scores, the criteria were watered down still further.  The districts were allowed to specify criteria other than test scores that might be used to assess students’ academic performance.  The Legislature had caved completely.  There would be no high-stakes testing for promotion from grade 4 to 5 and grade 8 to 9 in Wisconsin.

A similar pattern of setting aggressive goals and then backing down can also be found in Wisconsin’s experience with the High School Graduation Test.  The Legislature acted in 1997 to require a high school graduation test, to be constructed from “eligible” content from the state’s Model Academic Standards. The 1997 legislation stated that, beginning in 2002-2003, no school district could grant a high school diploma to any student who failed to pass such a test. But here, too, lawmakers soon had second thoughts. In 1999 they modified the law on the high school test, again requiring school boards to adopt, beginning September 1, 2002 written criteria for granting a high school diploma (over and above prior requirements). The new legislation specified that district criteria must address student scores on the high school graduation test, but the criteria also could address academic performance, as it might otherwise be assessed, plus teacher recommendations. Scores on the high school graduation test would, in any case, be recorded on students’ transcripts. The Legislature had caved again.  There would be no high-stakes testing for high school graduation in Wisconsin.

Model Academic Standards and State Testing

Developments in testing nationwide influenced testing in Wisconsin during the 1990s. Schug and Western10 traced the history of the process, which was marked by confusion and false starts.  We draw heavily on their account.   In November 1994, the DPI received a grant from the U.S. Department of Education to develop Challenging Content Standards in seven areas including dance, English language arts, foreign language, music, social studies, theatre, and visual arts. Task forces were appointed to develop performance standards, content standards, and proficiency levels for each area. In 1995, the DPI again used grant money from the U.S. Department of Education to develop additional standards in science and mathematics. Leading educators in other subject areas (including family and consumer education, health, and physical education) found resources so that they could develop standards. The initial drafts of standards produced in this round of activity were published on newsprint and widely distributed throughout the state. They were examined in three rounds of hearings; each hearing focused on a revision from a previous draft. The hearings continued into 1996. By that time, the English language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies had emerged as focal points.

In January 1996, by executive order, the governor created a Governor’s Advisory Task Force on Education and Learning, authorizing it to address policies related to educational standards, assessment, and accountability. The task force was asked specifically to identify the means needed for achieving improved student learning. Meanwhile, the standards evolving under DPI auspices had begun to stir up controversy as a result of criticisms leveled against them during the hearing process. In January 1997, the governor became directly involved, creating, by executive order, the Governor’s Council on Model Academic Standards. The council consisted of the lieutenant governor, serving as chair, the state superintendent of Public Instruction, the chairs and ranking minority members of the Senate and Assembly Education Committees, and one public member appointed by the governor. This group was charged with developing academic standards for all students in English language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies, at grades 4, 8, and 10. Unkind critics said at the time that the education policy scene in Madison looked like a Keystone Cops comedy, with the Governor’s Office and the DPI engaged in an uncoordinated chase after state standards. Cooler heads eventually brought the groups together under a plan providing that the DPI Task Force would be reconstituted, with new members to be appointed from the Governor’s Office.

The reconstituted task force drafted a new set of standards and held more hearings, which once again produced rounds of criticism and praise. A revised version of these went forward to the governor, and he approved them by executive order in 
January 1998. By August 1, 1998, Wisconsin school boards would be required by law either to adopt these state standards or to develop standards of their own. Most districts adopted the state standards — some doing so only, they said, because the legislated deadline did not provide enough time for them to develop their own. Some larger districts and some smaller ones (Milwaukee and Whitefish Bay, for example) did chose to develop their own standards. This second phase of standards development relied on statewide task forces appointed at the direction of the governor and the DPI. The standards that emerged from the Governor’s Council were, by design, more precise than the earlier versions had been. Also (and for the first time), the new standards were designed as one element in a larger program that would include statewide testing. These outcomes were shaped in part by the rivalry that came into view when the DPI and the Governor’s Office jockeyed for control of the process. Federal policy also played a role. The character of the new standards — relatively detailed and specific, as per recommendations from the National Education Summit meetings of 1989 and 1996 — reflected a strong new emphasis on national goals and state government leadership in K-12 education. Local boards of education could opt out of the standards initiative (in part), if they wished to, but only at high cost.

In summary, the relative complacency of the 1970s and 1980s eventually gave way to state-level demands for clear standards and accountability, particularly in English language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies.  The friendly, informal checkup by the family physician was supplanted by more probative examinations allowing for comparisons to be made between performance levels within individual schools, between school districts, and among schools throughout the state.  Nearly all students would be tested, and tests were designed and administered in a manner that would permit comparisons to be made.   However any effort to establish high-stakes testing - the sort that would provide important incentives for teachers to teach effectively and for students to focus on remaining in school and studying hard - were quickly abandoned and never again taken seriously.

Current System

What is the situation with state testing today?  Here we draw again on a report from the Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau.11 Several new developments have occurred.   Today, the Wisconsin Student Assessment System (WSAS) continues to include the WKCE, but it has evolved into a criterion-referenced test (i.e., a test in which each student’s learning is assessed against a content standard, not the performance of a norm group) taken by nearly all Wisconsin students.  The WKCE is now known as the WKCE-CRT.  The third- grade reading test which was used for many years has been supplanted by the grade 3 WKCE reading test.  Alternative tests known as the Wisconsin Alternative Assessment of English Language Learners and the Wisconsin Alternative Assessment of Students with Disabilities are now part of the WSAS.  

The WKCE-CRT has retained the same proficiency categories:

Advanced: In-depth understanding of academic knowledge and skills tested on the WKCE.
Proficient: Competency in the academic knowledge and skills tested.
Basic: Some academic knowledge and skills.  
Minimal Performance: Very limited academic knowledge and skills. 

The federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 resulted in several changes to testing in Wisconsin.  NCLB required that all students be tested in reading and math each year in grades three to eight, beginning in 2005-06, with science assessments once each in elementary, middle, and high school grades beginning in 2007-08. States are allowed to select and design their own assessments, but the tests must be aligned with the state’s academic standards.  In addition:

The overall goal of the NCLB is to have all children score proficient or advanced on statewide tests in reading and math by 2014. 

School districts are required to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) by annually demonstrating that all students are meeting state goals for reading and math.
School districts must disaggregate the achievement scores and test participation percentages by race, economic status, students with disabilities, and limited English - proficient students. All of the disaggregated subgroups must meet the annual accountability indicators. 

School districts failing to meet AYP face consequences.  If a school fails to make AYP for two consecutive years, it is identified for improvement. The school district and the DPI are supposed to provide technical assistance to the school, and transportation for students who choose to attend other district schools. After a third year of failure to make AYP, the district must also make tutoring and other supplemental educational services available to low-income students still enrolled in the school identified for improvement.  (This option has rarely been enforced by the U.S. Department of Education.)  After a fourth year of failure to make AYP, the district must implement corrective actions such as replacing school staff, implementing a new curriculum, providing professional development, or otherwise restructuring  the school  to enable it to make AYP. After a full year of corrective action and continued failure to make AYP, the district must implement major restructuring of the school, including reopening as a public charter school contracting with a different entity to operate the school, or turning operation over to the state. 
In 2005-06, 92 Wisconsin schools did not make AYP. Of those, 38 (34 Title I schools) were identified for improvement (failed to make AYP for at least two consecutive years for at least one subgroup) in 2005-06. One school district (Milwaukee Public Schools) was identified for improvement.

Calls to Expand the Current System to Include Choice Schools

In 2009, Governor Doyle proposed that schools in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) should be required to administer the WKCE examinations at grades 4, 8 and 10 beginning in 2010-11.  In addition the Governor recommended extending federal testing rules to Milwaukee’s Choice schools.  Under his plan, all Choice schools would be required to administer all tests in reading, mathematics, and science that are currently required only for public school districts.  NCLB requires that all students be tested in reading and math each year in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school and in science once each in elementary, middle, and high school.  

It appears that most Choice schools prefer to use other tests.  One recent report on the MPCP noted that most of the testing in Choice schools involves the use of nationally normed tests such as the Terra Nova or the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.12 These tests are used widely and allow for the possibility of national comparisons, something impossible to do with the WKCE given that it is customized to meet state standards.  The same report notes, however, that 36 Choice schools use the WKCE.  

The Governor has also recommended that each choice school be required to adopt Wisconsin’s Model Academic Standards in mathematics, science, reading and writing, geography, and history.  All Wisconsin public school districts as well as Wisconsin charter schools are currently obliged to follow the state’s academic standards.

National Criticisms of Wisconsin’s Standards and Testing Program

Wisconsin has faced national criticism for its standards and testing programs.  In 2006, the DPI encountered serious problems under NCLB and was challenged by the U.S. Department of Education regarding the adequacy of Wisconsin’s statewide testing system.  The U.S. Department of Education claimed that Wisconsin was not sufficiently testing the content laid out in its own state standards.  Eventually, the DPI had to provide additional test items for its examinations in all subject areas to more fully assess students’ learning against its own academic standards. 

Other critics also have faulted Wisconsin’s standards and testing program. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute has examined state standards in five subjects: U.S. history (2003), English/language arts (2005), mathematics (2005), science (2005), and world history (2006). The Fordham rankings tended to favor states with highly detailed standards and clear and rigorous content. 

In 2006, the Fordham Institute released a comprehensive report of its findings to date.13 The results were not good for Wisconsin. Fordham ranked Wisconsin 42nd in the nation.  (The top three states, according to Fordham’s criteria, were California, Indiana, and Massachusetts.) According to the Fordham report, Wisconsin’s science standards lack depth, its world history standards lack structure, and its math content is skimpy.  Overall, Fordham gave Wisconsin a grade of D-minus. Table 1 shows particular grades assigned by Fordham reviewers to Wisconsin’s standards.

Table 1
Fordham’s Grades for Wisconsin’s State Standards and Testing Report Card







U.S. History















The purpose of Wisconsin’s system of state standards and testing, for which taxpayers pay millions of dollar each year, is increased academic achievement.  Does Wisconsin have high academic standards and a respected testing system?  The answer is “no.”
Researchers from the U.S Department of Education and the Fordham Institute have determined that Wisconsin has low standards and a weak testing program.  
The NCLB calls for all students to be “proficient” in reading and mathematics by 2014.  However, the NCLB allows each state to define what it means by proficient, and it also allows each state to design its own tests.  These same proficiency levels and state tests also provide the basis by which districts are determined to have met AYP. 
The U.S. Department of Education was concerned that the percentages of students identified as proficient might vary widely across states for a given subject and grade. It published a report14 in which the percentages of students in states reaching proficiency in reading and math for grades four and eight were compared to the estimated percentages of students achieving proficiency as defined by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).  It reported:

There is a strong negative correlation between the proportions of students meeting the states’ proficiency standards and the NAEP score equivalents to those standards, suggesting that the observed heterogeneity in states’ reported percents proficient can be largely attributed to differences in the stringency of their standards. There is, at best, a weak relationship between the NAEP score equivalents for the state proficiency standard and the states’ average scores on NAEP.  Finally, most of the NAEP score equivalents fall below the cut-point corresponding to the NAEP Proficient standard, and many fall below the cut-point corresponding to the NAEP Basic standard.  

In this report, which involved mapping state proficiency standards in reading and mathematics onto the appropriate NAEP scale (2004-05), Wisconsin was among the states at the lower levels.  

At grade 4 in reading, Wisconsin proficiency levels rated well below the NAEP Basic cut score and considerably below the NAEP Proficient cut score.  Wisconsin ranked 22cd out of 32 states, far behind the leading states of Massachusetts, South Carolina, and Wyoming. 

At grade 8 in reading, Wisconsin proficiency levels rated well below the NAEP Basic cut score and considerably below the NAEP Proficient cut score. Wisconsin ranked 28th out of 34 states, far behind the leading states of Wyoming, South Carolina, and New York.

At grade 4 in mathematics, Wisconsin proficiency levels rated somewhat above the NAEP Basic cut score and considerably below the NAEP Proficient cut score. Wisconsin ranked 14th out of 33 states, far behind the leading states of Massachusetts, South Carolina, and Hawaii.

At grade 8 in math, Wisconsin proficiency levels rated slightly above the NAEP Basic cut score.  Wisconsin ranked 26th out of 36 states, far behind the leading states of Missouri, South Carolina, and Massachusetts.

Another national study reported similar concerns, while approaching the problem somewhat differently.  An October 200715 study by the Fordham Institute and the Northwest Evaluation Association investigated the various states’ expectations for proficiency in reading and mathematics and the consistency of the proficiency standards across grades.  Using data from 26 states, for schools whose pupils participated in state testing and in assessment by the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), investigators ranked states according to their cut scores (the levels students need to reach in order to pass the test for NCLB purposes).    Results showed that state tests vary greatly in their difficulty.  Wisconsin does poorly, as can be seen in Table 2.   Colorado, Wisconsin, and Michigan generally have the lowest proficiency standards in reading.  South Carolina, California, Maine, and Massachusetts have the highest. In math, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin have the lowest standards.  South Carolina, Massachusetts, California, and New Mexico have the highest.

Table 2   
Wisconsin’s Rank for Proficiency Cut Scores Among 26 States in Reading and Mathematics, 2005 

(Ranking out of 26 states for pupils participating in assessment by NWEA)


Grade 3

Grade 4

Grade 5

Grade 6

Grade 7

Grade 8















 Weaknesses of the WKCE-CRT

Concerns about technical features of testing programs—cut-score comparisons across states, the adequacy of Wisconsin’s academic standards—are   serious matters that should command the attention of state policy makers.  These technical features, however, may well strike others as low-priority problems.  Leaders in local school districts face more immediate, practical concerns regarding the WKCE-CR.  The biggest problem has to do with timing.   Wisconsin administers its state tests in the fall (in October and November).  This drives school people crazy.  At that time nearly all students have returned to school after a long summer break and then they must take the state tests almost immediately.  And that is not the worst of it.   The WKCE is a static, paper - and - pencil test.  Paper tests have to be returned to the state, where the data must be entered and analyzed.  This results in a maddening delay.  Tests are taken in fall—and much depends on the results—but the results don’t get back to the schools until May.  The results therefore are useless during the current school year. Teachers and administrators cannot use the results in that year to diagnose current learning problems or to help teachers make the necessary adjustments they need to make right away to improve achievement.  Given the mobility of urban student populations, the time-related problems are even worse for districts like the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) and the many charter schools that operate in the city, which also are required to use state testing.

Consider the situation from a local school district perspective.  Districts are being held to NCLB standards regarding the achievement of AYP.  Yet, the state testing system is of no use in assessing students or planning for modified instruction in a timely matter.  What might local school districts do?  Many have decided to use their own budgets to help them do a better job of assessing and improving student learning in a timely fashion.  Our survey of school districts shows that a majority of the districts surveyed find it necessary to seek additional testing.  The following section provides the details of our state survey.

Testing Beyond the WKCE-CR in Wisconsin Schools: Survey Results

In order to determine what Wisconsin school districts are currently doing in the area of student achievement testing, we conducted a survey in the fall of 2007.  With help from the Wisconsin Association of School Boards16 (WASB), we sent a survey on student achievement and testing17 to all 426 of Wisconsin’s school districts.  The survey was addressed to the school district administrator and sent on WASB letterhead.  We received completed surveys, via fax, from 272 school districts, or about 64 percent of the total Wisconsin school district population.  The survey queried school districts on the types of testing they conduct, the grade levels in which various tests are conducted, the subjects tested, and how data obtained from the testing are used. 
The results from this survey provide several insights into the status of student achievement testing in Wisconsin’s K-12 schools.   Perhaps the most important finding is that most Wisconsin school districts find the WKCE testing to be inadequate, so much so that it must be supplemented with additional testing.  Just over 68 percent, or 186 school districts, reported conducting periodic student achievement testing beyond the required WKCE tests. 

These 186 school districts were asked which tests they are currently using.  While there was substantial disparity in the number of tests reported, some trends could be identified.  About half (49.2 percent) of the districts doing testing beyond the WKCE use the Northwest Education Association (NWEA) Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) assessment system.18  Another 14.5 percent of districts testing beyond WKCE report using district-developed assessments.  Another 33.5 percent of the districts report using other tests, including Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) and Terra Nova among others.  

We asked the school districts that reported conducting testing beyond the WKCE to identify the grade levels and subjects for which they are testing.  Responses are summarized in Tables 3 and 4.  A total of 168 school districts provided information about the grade levels they test while 90 school districts provided responses to the question about subjects tested. The most common grade levels tested are 4th (85.1 percent of districts) and 5th (85.7 percent of districts).   Testing is also common in 2nd, 3rd, 6th and 7th grades.   In terms of subjects tested, reading is by far the most common.   Eighty-one of the districts, or 90 percent, reported testing beyond WKCE in reading.   The next most common subject area for assessment beyond the WKCE is math.   Seventy districts, or 77.8 percent of the total, reported testing in math.  Other areas tested include English/language (37.8 percent), science (17.8 percent), social studies (5.4 percent), and other (23.3 percent).  

Table 3  

Grade Levels Tested Beyond WKCE

Grade Level










































Total responses = 168

Table 4  
Subject Areas Tested Beyond WKCE





Social Studies

















Total responses = 90

Here is a summary of the results of the school district survey on student achievement testing:

  • 186 out of the 272 school districts that responded to our survey (68.4 percent) report conducting testing beyond the WKCE.
  • Of these 186 school districts, about half (49.2 percent) report using the Northwest Education Association (NWEA) Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) assessment system.  Another 14.5 percent report using district-developed assessments, while 33.5 percent report using another testing system.
  • The most common grade levels tested are 4th (85.1 percent of districts) and 5th (85.7 percent of districts).   Testing is also common in 2nd, 3rd, 6th and 7th grade. 
  • 81 of the districts, or 90 percent, report testing beyond WKCE in reading.  70 districts, or 77.8 percent of the total, report testing in math.  Other areas tested include English/language (37.8 percent), science (17.8 percent ), social studies (5.4 percent) and other (23.3 percent). 

In summary, it seems clear that the majority of Wisconsin school districts find the WKCE testing to be inadequate—so much so that it must be supplemented with additional testing.  Many districts report using growth or value-added methodologies.  How does the use of value-added methodologies in Wisconsin compare to other states?  Which Wisconsin school districts are leaders in the use of this new technique, and what do they do with the data?  The answers to these questions are both interesting and revealing in terms of the future of state testing in Wisconsin.  These will be discussed in greater detail in the second report in this series from the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute titled “Value-Added Testing: Improving State Testing and Teacher Compensation in Wisconsin”.

Conclusions and Recommendations

State testing in Wisconsin has changed dramatically over the past 30 years.  What began as a modest program where outcomes mattered little has grown into a large-scale program providing for annual testing at several grade levels, dominated by state and federal rules.  While state testing in Wisconsin has evolved, it is far from perfect today.  It has been a target of criticism from the U.S. Department of Education and other national policy groups such as the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

While Wisconsin has struggled to maintain a system known for  its weak standards and  its inadequate  testing program,  new developments in testing methodology have emerged elsewhere, shifting the focus in statewide assessment—from testing for achievement to testing for achievement growth.  These developments point toward new directions for Wisconsin to consider in its state assessment program and, eventually, in compensation programs for Wisconsin teachers.   We consider this in detail in our second report on state testing.

This is not to say that testing programs in Wisconsin are stagnant. Our 2007 survey of   Wisconsin school districts revealed that most districts now supplement state testing with additional testing they pay for themselves.  This suggests that they, too, find the state assessments to be inadequate.  

As indicated in our survey, many Wisconsin school districts have moved to embrace new trends in testing. Nonetheless, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction has lagged behind in providing leadership in this regard.  While the DPI has taken some positive initial steps toward a statewide value-added assessment system—including the development of a statewide data system, working with outside consultants to consider growth-oriented models and forming a technical advisory committee—Wisconsin lags behind many states in the implementation of new value-added testing methodologies.
Now is the time for Wisconsin to reform its state testing system by moving decisively toward the use of value-added testing.   Toward this end, we recommend that the WKCE-CR testing system should be replaced or significantly modified.  Testing students in the fall of the year eliminates the possibility of using test results to improve curriculum and instruction for the current year.  Experiments should be undertaken to move toward a computer-based system that can provide results in a more timely fashion.  One possibility would be for Wisconsin to adopt part of the testing regime developed by the Northwest Evaluation Association; many Wisconsin school districts have already moved in this direction on their own.

We further recommend that, given all the problems identified in this report with regard to state testing and standards, 2010 is not the right time to force Milwaukee choice schools into using state tests and state standards.  It would wiser to delay such a decision until state testing and standards have been significantly improved.


1       U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Digest of Education Statistics, 2007.
2     U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Condition of Education, 2008.
3     U.S. Census Bureau. Public Education Finances, 2006 (issued 2008).
4     Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance. School Facts, 2008. Madison, Wisconsin.
5     U.S. Department of Education. Mapping 2005 State Proficiency Standards onto the NAEP Scales. Washington D.C.: June 2007.
6     Borsuk, J. Alan. Reading Gap Is Nation’s Worst. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, September 26, 2007. 
7     Merrifield, Tricia L. Pupil Assessment. Information paper  #32. Madison, Wisconsin: Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau (January 1999).
8     Collins, Layla. Pupil Assessment. Information paper  #32. Madison, Wisconsin: Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau (January 2007).
9     WKCE 1975 – Present. httt// accessed August 6, 2008.
10     Schug, Mark C. and Western, Richard D. Standards-Based Education Reform in Wisconsin: What Will It Take to Make It Work? Thiensville, WI: Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. March 2000.
11     Merrifield, Tricia L. Pupil Assessment. Information paper #32. Madison, Wisconsin: Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau (January 1999).
12     Gray, Nathan L., Wolf, Patrick J., and Jensen, Laura I., Milwaukee Longitudinal School Choice Evaluation: Annual School Testing Summary Report School Choice Demonstration Project, Milwaukee Evaluation Report # 9. Fayetteville, AR: University of Arkansas: 2009     
13  Finn, Chester E., Liam Julian, Michael J. Petrilli. The State of State Standards 2006. Washington D.C.: The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.
14     U.S. Department of Education. Mapping 2005 State Proficiency Standards onto the NAEP Scales. Washington D.C.: June 2007.
15     Cronin, John, Michael Dahlin, Deborah Adkins and G. Gage Kingsbury.  The Proficiency Illustration. Washington D.C.: Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Northwest Evaluation Association. 2007
16     For more information about the WASB please see:
17     The complete survey is available for review in Appendix 1 of this report.
18     More information about the NWEA assessment system can be obtained from: