The results for the 2019 administration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have just been released. The NAEP is given to samples of students around the country on a biannual basis, and provides the best method of comparing performance among students in different states. 

Unfortunately for Wisconsin, the story is yet another riff on a tired tune:  student achievement is largely stagnant, and gaping racial achievement gaps persist.  

Overall, achievement in Wisconsin has remained relatively flat. Scores have moved no more than a point in either direction over the past decade. In some ways, this is not a bad thing. Wisconsin students remain above the national average among eighth graders in reading and math. But there is some cause for concern here. Wisconsin’s fourth grade students used to exceed the national average in these areas as well, but are now on par with the rest of the country.  It appears other states are “catching up” to Wisconsin. 

Some might say that this is a result of cuts in Wisconsin’s spending, but the facts don’t support this. The chart below shows Wisconsin’s per pupil spending since 2013 along with the NAEP scores. Inflation-adjusted spending has increased while NAEP scores stagnate. 

Source: Nation’s Report Card, Wisconsin

But far more concerning is the achievement gap between white students and African American students in the state. The chart below shows the states with the largest achievement gap between these groups. The chart depicts eighth grade math but the results are generally the same across subjects–Wisconsin is doing the worst in the country.  

This is not a new problem. Along with many others, I have written about this achievement gap on past iterations of the NAEP. In her first State of Wisconsin Education address, Superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor called this achievement gap a “crisis.” Yet it appears that, despite years of hand-wringing, little progress is being made. 


The persistent achievement gap is particularly problematic because this represents the situation prior to the coronavirus pandemic. Differences in access to supplementary materials, tutoring, and even basic internet access tend to fall along racial and economic lines. At a time when most education is being conducted at home, some research has suggested that the pandemic will serve to further exacerbate these gaps. 

If closing the achievement gap were easy, no doubt far more progress would be made. But we do have some solutions with a proven track record of success that many public school proponents are reticent to try.  Wisconsin’s choice and charter schools significantly outperform traditional public schools according to a growing body of research. While the reasons behind this greater success are myriad, I would argue the key is that school choice allows families to choose the school that best fits the needs of their child, rather than a “one-size-fits-all” option determined by ZIP code. 

During the pandemic, policymakers can help to ensure that all kids have options available by funding students directly rather than using the antiquated pass-through of the school district. In this manner, low-income families will be better able to access the sort of resources that will help them avoid falling further behind until we get back to a more traditional learning environment.

If the ostensible proponents of education like the governor are truly focused on reducing the achievement gap, they will move beyond the interests of the teachers unions and be open to policies such as these. But given their track record of opposing efforts to provide options to low income families, I won’t hold my breath. 

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