Do state school report cards tell us much we don’t already know?

Last week the Department of Public Instruction released state school and school district report cards for the 422 school districts in existence when 2017-18 data was gathered. (There are now 421 school districts due to a consolidation.)

Editor’s Note:  Wisconsin has two accountability systems. Our federal accountability system was purposely designed to address just the lowest-performing schools in the state.  State policymakers wanted to keep the existing state accountability system as one under which no federal permissions would be needed, hence two systems.

As in previous years, this year’s state school and district report cards once again show a strong inverse relationship between student poverty and school performance.  That is, the higher the percentage of economically disadvantaged students in a school, the less well that school’s performance is likely to rank,  as measured by state report cards.

Indeed, the DPI  press release that accompanied the release of the largely test-based report cards acknowledged this:

“While there are exceptions, schools that have one- and two-star ratings … have higher rates of student poverty. For the 2017-18 report cards, schools that meet few expectations (two stars) have nearly 62 percent of students from economically disadvantaged families. Schools that fail to meet expectations (one star) have an overall poverty rate of 78.4 percent.  …Conversely, schools at the five-star accountability rating, significantly exceeds expectations, have just under 25 percent of students from economically disadvantaged families.”

The linkage between student poverty and performance on standardized tests is well known.  That it persists as strongly as it does is problematic.   A few years ago, in response to criticisms that report cards were little more than  a measure of student poverty within a school or district, lawmakers changed Wisconsin’s largely test-based report card formula so that for schools and districts with relatively high rates of student poverty, the report card formula gives greater weight to growth in student learning over time than it gives to how well students score on grade level proficiency at a single moment in time.  Despite this formula change, student poverty and report card ratings continue to be strongly linked. 

Proponents of test-based accountability argue these tests measure student achievement, are easily quantifiable, allow comparisons between schools and districts, provide consistency and ensure that teachers and schools are accountable to taxpayers.  

Opponents counter that testing promotes a “teaching to the test” curriculum, undermines innovation and critical thinking and that tests are not the best evidence of student performance. With so much riding on the results, they argue, less time is spent on the sciences, social studies, music and other arts in order to prepare students to take the tests in math, reading and writing.

Whatever your position on test-based accountability or recent tinkering with the report card formula, report card scores of a given school or district still mirror the student demographics within that school or district to a large degree.  To solve this problem perhaps more focus on reducing achievement gaps is needed, including making sure our youngest students enter school ready to learn.