DPI released this year’s report cards for all of the schools throughout Wisconsin on Tuesday. The report cards include sufficient data to create comparisons between schools on a level playing field, by taking into account the characteristics of students in the school. This includes accounting for the race and economic status of students, as well as the enrollment, grade level and number of English language learners in a school.

While WILL’s full analysis will be included in the next edition of our annual “Apples to Apples” study, below are four preliminary takeaways from the report cards. 

 A Lake Wobegon Effect? Wisconsin is a state, according to the latest report cards, where (almost) everyone is above average. Despite proficiency rates in that hover around 40% in both math and reading, 87% of schools in the state meet or exceed expectations. 

A part of the explanation for this is that growth and proficiency make up different shares of a school’s overall achievement score depending on the number of low income kids in the school. Because low income kids start from behind in many cases, growth makes up a bigger share of the score when a school has more low income kids.  

It is laudable to account for student growth, but we should recognize that it makes comparisons between schools more difficult. When a school like Kluge Elementary in Milwaukee “Meets Expectations” with proficiency rates of 4.1% in math and reading, something is unbalanced. 

Huge Racial Achievement Gaps Persist. The troubling pattern that was seen on the NAEP several weeks ago exists on state report cards as well.  Accounting for other factors that are known to impact proficiency, schools with large African American populations have proficiency rates about 21% lower in math and 19% lower in reading than schools with predominately white populations. While Hispanic students are on par with white students when it comes to reading, an 11% gap exists in math performance. 

In Milwaukee, Significantly Higher Proficiency in Choice Schools. As we have seen in several previous years of conducting this analysis, students in Milwaukee’s choice program remain ahead of their MPS peers. Students in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) performed about 4% higher in math and 6% higher in reading. 

This proficiency advantage is on par with what we have found in previous years, and is more impressive when one recalls that this exists after taking into account the characteristics of students.

In Milwaukee, Higher Proficiency in Charters That Have Independence from the School District.  In Wisconsin, we have 3 types of charter schools that vary in the amount of freedom that they have from district rules. 

“Instrumentality” charters are often referred to as ‘charters in name only.’ They have unionized teachers, the same per-pupil funding as traditional public schools, and are generally similar to traditional public schools. 

Independent charters and non-instrumentalities have much greater independence from school districts, and it is no surprise that their performance trumps that of instrumentalities. In both math and reading, independent and non—instrumentality charter performance exceeds that of MPS. Indeed, the largest proficiency difference that we found in this year’s data, 13%, was for non-instrumentalities in Reading.

Instrumentalities had higher proficiency in reading, but no advantage in math. 

Growing Evidence of Choice Advantage Statewide. The Wisconsin Parental Choice Program (WPCP) and Racine Parental Choice Program (RPCP) continue to grow, but a relatively small share of enrollment in previous years has prevented us from identifying statistically significant performance differences from traditional public schools out-state.  However, that is changing.

While we have found a performance advantage in previous years when we look at the aggregate performance of all three programs including the MPCP, this is the first year that a performance advantage was found for the WPCP and RPCP excluding Milwaukee. Students in these programs outperformed their public school peers by about 3% in reading in comparison to public school students throughout the state. While no difference was found in math performance, this is intriguing evidence that the out-state programs are continuing to improve as they expand. 

The claim that choice and charter schools look no different than traditional public schools when it comes to performance no longer holds water. This is the fourth straight year that WILL has made these level-playing field comparisons, and the fourth straight year that a proficiency advantage for choice and charter schools has been found.  If the governor and the Superintendent of Public Instruction truly were interested in improving student outcomes, they would look to expand access to these schools rather than choking them out of existence. 

Dr. Will Flanders is the Research Director for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.