Public Policy Forum Blog

Public Schooling in Southeast Wisconsin: 2015-16

As students and teachers rapidly approach the midpoint of the school year, a new, comprehensive report from the Public Policy Forum highlights the academic successes and challenges in the region. The report, Public Schooling in Southeast Wisconsin: 2015-16, provides updated analyses using new data and trends of student demographics and enrollments, academic achievement, and school district financing. This current iteration is the 31th annual public schools report from the Forum.

School districts in southeast Wisconsin experienced a number of changes and transitions in the 2015-16 school year. The new school and district report cards include revised metrics designed to better capture growth in student achievement, as opposed only to achievement at a particular point in time. In addition to showing district-by-district performance on the new report cards, this year's analysis includes the first year of data for the new state assessment – the Forward Exam – which is the third type of state assessment used in as many years.

The new accountability measures show that southeast Wisconsin is making progress in some areas, while seeing declines in others. The report cards indicate that 68 of the 92 school districts in southeast Wisconsin are exceeding or significantly exceeding expectations, a very positive sign. However, the Forward Exam shows that fewer than half of students score on grade level for English and math, while achievement gaps for low-income students and students of color are larger in the region than across the state.

The report’s annual trend analysis of school district finances, meanwhile, shows that per-pupil expenditures in the 2014-15 school year increased in six of the seven counties in southeast Wisconsin. On the revenue side, every county in the region experienced per-pupil revenue increases over the previous year.

Some key findings include:

  • Regional enrollment decline quickens. School district enrollment in southeast Wisconsin declined by 1.2 percentage points in 2015-16, a loss of 3,576 students. This follows a 0.8-point decrease in 2014-15.
  • Student diversity increases. Students of color comprise 43.3% of enrollments in regional school districts, up from 42.7% in 2014-15. Hispanic students continue to increase in numbers, while African American and white student enrollment decreased in the past year.
  • Achievement gaps are particularly large. Proficiency rates for African American students on the Forward Exam are 39 to 47 points lower than their white peers for 3rd and 8th grade English Language Arts and math. Hispanic students perform better, but still trail white students by at least 27 points across the two tests and grade levels.
  • College readiness measures stagnant or declining. The composite ACT score for the region and state showed no change in 2015-16. More students participated in AP exams, though the pass rate fell 1.6 percentage points. The high school graduation rate in southeast Wisconsin is 83.9%, a decrease of 0.6 points, and trails the state average graduation rate of 88.4%.
  • Higher student attendance, but also higher truancy. Districts in the region posted a 95.4% attendance rate, up 1.3 percentage points in the past year. However, the region also saw truancy rates tick up 0.4 points to 2.1%.

There are many challenges currently facing school and district leaders in southeast Wisconsin. The Governor and Legislature will debate and pass another biennial budget this spring. The uncertainty related to state funding and regulations, coupled with the very real changes in student demographics and new accountability measures, combine to create a challenging environment for school and district leaders. The analyses in this report are intended to provide perspective on school district characteristics and performance that will be useful to leaders as they seek to effectively navigate that environment and that will set the stage for continued research and discussion among stakeholders as more data become available.

Joe Yeado