Public Policy Forum Blog

Who's responsible for the achievement gap?

A new federal study of standardized test scores finds Wisconsin has the most persistent achievement gap in the nation between African-American and white students. This story received prominent play in the New York Times on Tuesday, but was covered with a just short article inside the local section of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Wednesday.

The Times coverage quotes the head of the Education Trust, a national education advocacy group, as saying principals in Wisconsin were "stunned" to find out the results.

It sounds incredulous that Wisconsin principals weren't truly aware of the extent of the problem. But it is important to note that the findings are based on a national standardized test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and not on the state standardized test, the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam (WKCE). NAEP scores are always presented at the state level because the test is actually taken by a sample of students across the state, and not by every student in every district, as is the WKCE. So principals are probably less likely to feel the statewide NAEP results truly reflect the status of their school or district. In addition, some studies have shown that the NAEP is more rigorous than the WKCE; a score earning a grade of "proficient" on the WKCE is much lower than a proficient score on the NAEP. So principals whose students do well as defined by the WKCE might be "stunned" by lower performance on the NAEP.

At any rate, the federal study shows that Wisconsin schools are losing ground in comparison with schools in other states when it comes to narrowing the racial achievement gap. The study doesn't note which states have open enrollment programs, which allow students to choose to attend schools outside their resident districts. Might the presence of this program in Wisconsin help explain our "stunning" results?

Most of the state's African-American students attend school in districts in southeast Wisconsin, which is also where most of the students participating in open enrollment (and the smaller Chapter 220 interdistrict integration program) attend school. Consequently, in many of the region's school districts, non-resident students make up a significant portion, if not nearly all, of their minority student population. In addition, the region's scores on the WKCE, on the whole, lag behind the rest of the state's.

Open enrollment and Chapter 220 may thus have a relationship to the achievement gap if the performance of the students opting for these programs differs from that of other students. This kind of gap might not get addressed if there is a perception within a district that performance should be measured mostly by the test scores of the district's "own" students, meaning resident students, because these students are more likely to stay in the school or district throughout their schooling career and are truly products of that district. While non-resident students may in fact be less likely to spend their entire schooling career in one district, if much of a district's diversity comes from its non-resident students, how can this attitude result in anything but a racial achievement gap?

If a district is only responsible for resident students, then no one should be stunned by the pursuant gap. But it's harder to sustain this argument when it is a statewide result being analyzed. These children are all Wisconsinites. They all count when it comes time to measure up to the rest of the country.

If the scores of resident students could be compared to those of non-resident students, we could analyze the extent to which the achievement gap may or may not be due to a lack of concern about non-resident performance. But state law does not instruct districts to disaggregate the scores of open enrollment or Chapter 220 students. Some districts, of course, likely do so anyway, at least internally, which may be the basis for the perception of success with their "own" students. But there is no way of knowing, on a statewide basis, whether the children who have exercised a choice to attend a school outside their resident district are being left behind, causing Wisconsin's achievement gap to grow ever larger.

Anneliese Dickman