A tale of two Wisconsins
High schools across America are under the microscope. Reform is in the air, being pushed by the federal government and some of the nation’s highest-profile private foundations. Not to be outdone, Wisconsin’s state Superintendent of Public Instruction has targeted high school education for reform. But where should reform be directed?
This study takes a fresh approach in probing the state of high school education in Wisconsin. It uncovers some disquieting facts about our high schools, pinpointing an expanding gap between high- and low-performing high schools. Further, the study uncovers a finding that should give pause to those policymakers who reflexively seek to solve educational issues with additional money.
Wisconsin has long prided itself on the academic performance of the state’s high schools. For the past decade, the state has consistently led or finished among the top two states in the country on student performance on the college-entrance ACT exam. Other less-utilized standardized tests, such as the SAT and the National Assessment of Student Performance (NAEP — also known as the Nation’s Report Card), also show Wisconsin students performing well compared to their peers from throughout the country.
But an analysis of scores on standardized tests taken by all high school students in Wisconsin shows a different picture — one with a sizable achievement gap between the state’s high-performing and low-performing school districts. And the achievement gap is growing.
From the data in this study, a picture of two Wisconsins emerges. In Wisconsin’s top-tier high schools 86% of the students score proficient or higher on the tenth-grade test. This contrasts sharply with the lowest-tier high schools, where only 60% score proficient or better. The averages of this lower tier are affected by the disturbing performance of the state’s two lowest-performing districts — Menominee and Milwaukee — in which approximately 30% of the students score proficient or higher. However, when data from these two districts are excluded, only 62% of students in the lower tier districts score proficient or higher on standardized tests.
Significantly the study finds that the gap between high- and low-achieving high schools is getting worse rather than better. Over the eight years examined, the performance of high school students in top-tier districts has skyrocketed compared to other districts. In 1996-97 their scores were 10.7% above the statewide average. By 2003-04 they had reached a point 21.3% above average. Contrast this with the performance of the lowest-tier districts. During the same eight-year period, the performance of students in the lower-tier districts fell from a point 13.7% below average to 17.3% below average. Thus, a picture of the two Wisconsins emerges from this study.
An unexpected finding is that the growing gap between the performance of top and bottom-tier high schools occurred during a time when the spending gap between these two groups of schools remained relatively constant. In fact, during the seven years studied, spending in low-tier districts actually got closer to spending in high-tier districts. Yet, during that period, the achievement gap widened. The performance gap seems to be unaffected by spending.
Further, the study also includes a statistical analysis of the relationship between high school test scores and spending for all districts in Wisconsin. This analysis found there to be an insignificant relationship between spending and student test scores. In short, money cannot close the performance gap. Therefore, policymakers looking to close the performance gap need not consider spending as a primary solution.
The study did find that the growing performance gap is largely influenced by socioeconomic factors beyond the influence of schools. Property wealth, poverty and race were found to affect student performance. It might be tempting to look for ways to spend additional money to address these issues. However, the lesson from this study is that the higher spending that has been tried has proven ineffective in addressing the performance gap.
Finally, the study suggests a series of steps that should be pursued to elevate the performance of high school students. These include boosting high school graduation requirements, elevating admission standards for the UW system, and considering implementation of a high school graduation test.