The Department of Public Instruction (DPI) recently released a second set of report cards for Wisconsin’s public schools that call into question how well the state is serving its most vulnerable students. These new “federal report cards” are required under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

Every state was required to produce report cards under ESSA, though states could customize both the data and how to structure the report cards. DPI crafted the federal report cards essentially unilaterally, with very little input from the state legislature and former Governor Scott Walker.

The Wisconsin federal accountability system analyzes different data than the current state report cards. DPI describes the goal of Wisconsin’s federal accountability system as “to appropriately identify public schools, based on overall and subgroup performance, most in need of support and systems improvements.” This means that the report cards only identify public schools that are the lowest performing schools based on student group performance.

Since the state and federal report cards look at different data, schools may be identified as low performing under one or both systems. Under the federal accountability system, 56 school districts and independent charter schools are identified as low performing. In many cases, the students identified as low performing on the federal report cards are the groups of students that Wisconsin is known to fail the most—African Americans, Hispanic students, and students with disabilities.  

But perhaps most disturbingly, 40 percent of the schools identified as low performing under the federal system are also identified as schools that are successful under the state report card system. In fact, four out of the 381 schools were rated “significantly exceeds expectations” on the state report card while also identified as in need of targeted support for specific subgroups of students on the federal report card. You can view a list of these discrepancies here.

These conflicting reports have important implications for how we understand the state of education in Wisconsin. For parents who are looking at the state’s report card scores and making a decision to send their child to a “significantly exceeds expectations” school, the federal report cards show that those schools still may not be serving every child well.

Why are there such stark differences between the report cards? One key reason is that the state report cards now heavily weight results for the composition of the student body. In schools with a large number of low-income kids, the ability of a school to improve student achievement is weighted much higher than the share of students in that school who are proficient. The result of this is that a school that would be considered failing with no low income students can be considered highly successful when it is made up primarily of low income students.

If this sounds vaguely similar to what President George W. Bush famously called the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” you’re correct. It is the key reason why Milwaukee was not considered to be a failing school district despite woeful proficiency rates district-wide on the latest round of state report cards. But there is some logic behind it as well—low-income kids start from further behind in their education, and schools that do a good job helping them “catch up” deserve to be credited for it.

The bottom line is that the state’s report cards mask continued, real problems in Wisconsin education. The new federal report cards represent a meaningful second look at the data, and one that should not be ignored. While we should reward schools that help students make up for lost academic ground, we should not pretend that our state doesn’t continue to stagnate when it comes to improving educational outcomes for our most vulnerable students.

 Libby Sobic is the Director & Legal Counsel of Education Policy at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.

 Dr. Will Flanders is the research director for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.