Moving from bureaucracy to accountability
By James Cibulka, Ph.D.
Wisconsin citizens are accustomed to viewing their public schools as among the nation’s finest. Undoubtedly, some evidence — such as Wisconsin’s first-place ranking on the ACT (American College Testing) exam — can be mounted to support this claim. Also, many Wisconsin school districts use norm-referenced tests, such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, on which Wisconsin students perform well, on average, compared to their peers in other states.
Why then, do Wisconsin citizens need to be concerned about improving their state’s public-school system? There are two answers to this question. The first is that, at present, Wisconsin citizens do not have very good information about our students’ performance. The ACT and SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) college-entrance exams are notoriously flawed measures of school-system performance because not every student takes them — making comparisons across schools, districts, or states difficult. Also, the tests have been renormed to make today’s scores better than they would be using historical benchmarks. Such tests only tell us about the performance of graduating seniors. Perhaps most important, as this report argues, the nation is shifting to a radically new frame of reference in studying student achievement. That frame of reference has two components. First, rather than comparing students’ performances with one another, we are now comparing students to objective standards that are rigorous.1 The assessments require students to show how they can perform on complex, problem-solving tasks, not on short-answer, multiple-choice answers — the predominant format of norm-referenced tests. If this new testing approach were to be used statewide in Wisconsin, it would provide better information about how well the state’s students are prepared to function academically in today’s global society. It is likely that much of the complacency Wisconsin citizens feel about being “number one” would evaporate.
The second reason Wisconsin citizens should be concerned about the quality of their public schools is rooted in comparisons with what is happening in other states and countries. Wisconsin lags behind many other states in efforts to reform the management and governance of its public schools. This is not only true in the area of student assessment. As this report will show, Wisconsin lacks other state policies designed to create a coherent approach to producing high student achievement and high performance throughout the state’s K-12 public- education system.
Meanwhile, other states and other nations are not standing still with regard to reform. The states that are taking an aggressive approach to reform are not only those that historically had poor public-school performance, as was true in many southern states. Minnesota, for instance, has been a national leader in education reform — and its students, like Wisconsin students, have performed well on the ACT. Unless Wisconsin improves its public schools with the same aggressive leadership one finds in many other states, the performance of Wisconsin students is likely to fall behind.
In short, the complacent attitude that Wisconsin’s schools are not “broke” and therefore “shouldn’t be fixed” is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the challenges facing the state’s public schools at this time.