Today, the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) scores for the 2017 school year were released. The NAEP provides the nation’s most comprehensive assessment of student performance. Because the exam is the same across states, it allows for far richer comparisons of student performance between states than is possible with most other assessments.   There are a number of ways to dissect the data, but we focus here on the racial achievement gap and overall student performance.

Wisconsin’s Black-White Achievement Gap Remains the Worst in the Country

Much has been made in recent years about the achievement gap between African American students and white students in Wisconsin. While closing this achievement gap has been a focus of both school districts and the Department of Public Instruction, it appears that little progress has been made. In mathematics, the achievement gap between white and black students on the NAEP was 43 points, worse than all other states. The same is true for reading, where the achievement gap of 36 points was the worst of all states. The only jurisdiction tracked by the NAEP where the achievement gap was worse was Washington DC, which has the largest gap in both categories. The tables below highlight the achievement gap in the state with the smallest gap—West Virginia, the national average, and Wisconsin.

One may note from this chart that the achievement gap is, of course, not all that matters.  West Virginia primarily achieves the lowest achievement gap because the performance of their white students is significantly lower than the performance of white students both in Wisconsin and many other states. But nonetheless, the persistence of this disparity in performance should be of great concern to policymakers and education leaders.

Among Hispanic students, the picture is slightly better though still concerning. The NAEP ranks Wisconsin’s reading achievement at 29, placing the state at 34 of the states with sufficient data for analysis. Wisconsin’s 20-point gap in mathematics achievement puts the state at 34 of 48 in that category as well.

In Overall Performance, Wisconsin Holds Steady 

On a somewhat brighter note, the state of Wisconsin continues to perform well overall when compared to other states.   There was no significant change in the NAEP scores of students in either math or science, and the state of Wisconsin continues to rank in the top 15 states in overall performance on the exam. 

However, this does not mean that there isn’t room for improvement.  Across the state, only 42 percent of students scored proficient in math in grade 4, and only 39 percent did so in grade 8.   In reading, only 35 percent of students scored proficient in grade 4, and only 39 percent did so in grade 8.  This means that across all areas and grade levels, the majority of students are scoring at levels that are considered to be below proficiency. 

Stagnation requires greater creativity

The best word to describe the 2017 NAEP for Wisconsin is stagnation.  The state remains above average in proficiency but continues to fail its most vulnerable students. What this suggests more than anything is that Wisconsin needs to shake up the status quo and provide additional avenues for competition and innovation inside and outside the traditional public-schools system.

Dr. Will Flanders is the Research Director for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.
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