On Tuesday, the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) released the Forward Exam test scores – mandated for grades 3-8 in math and English language Arts (ELA) for children at traditional public, public charter, and private schools (in the choice program). Per usual, we will do our deeper dive later in the year (Apples to Apples from last year), weighting test scores for every school in the state to take into account socio-economic status.

Here’s my first impressions on the test scores:

  1. The Racial & Economic Achievement Gap Remains

Some attention has been focused on the continued racial achievement gap in Wisconsin between white students and minority students. In the most recent round of Forward Exam scores, the differences remain quite substantial. Across the state, a school with all white students would be expected to have 18 percent higher rates of proficiency than a school with all-minority students in ELA. In math, that gap is 11 percent.

Less discussed in Wisconsin is the tremendous impact that economic status has on student achievement. A school with a population of 100 percent students who are economically disadvantaged would be expected to have proficiency rates more than 40 percent lower than a school with wealthier students. Indeed, this economics achievement gap is far larger in terms of proficiency effects than the racial achievement gap, and has important implications for the rural areas of the state, where the percentage of low-income families is higher than most suburban and some rural areas.

Figure.  Racial & Economic Achievement Gap, ELA

  1. Public Charter Schools Excel

While the initial data release by DPI did not include sufficient data for apples-to-apples comparisons among private schools in the choice program, the data was comprehensive enough for charter schools. Particularly in Milwaukee, these schools continue to outperform their peer schools. For this preliminary analysis, we pulled out independent and non-instrumentality charters from MPS, while leaving instrumentality charters—or charters in name-only—as part of the district’s performance. In both mathematics and English/language arts, charter schools continue to outperform their other public school peers.

In English/Language Arts, “free” charters had approximately 9 percent higher proficiency than traditional public schools.  In mathematics, these schools had 6.9 percent higher proficiency.  This is consistent with our past analyses which have found that independence from MPS is a key component of better student outcomes, whether through the chartering or the school choice program.

  1. Choice Program Topline Findings

As mentioned above, DPI did not make the demographic characteristics of choice schools available to us at the time of this writing, meaning that we cannot fully level the playing field between these schools and others. While this will assuredly be part of our next Apples to Apples study, some topline analysis by School Choice Wisconsin  has found that students in the state’s choice programs are outperforming their peers on the ACT—both in Milwaukee and around the state of Wisconsin.  This finding is consistent across the math, ELA and science portions of the exam. They have also found topline advantages for students in the choice program on the Forward Exam even without accounting for socio-economic status, which suggests that the findings would be even more dramatic were that data able to be accounted for (since the vast majority of children in the state’s choice programs are low-income).

Will FlandersWill Flanders is the research director for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL). This first appeared in the WILL Blog.