2016-17 annual report on public schooling in southeast Wisconsin delivers mixed news

By Anne Chapman

As many schools throughout Wisconsin get ready to take their winter breaks, the Public Policy Forum releases its 32nd annual public education report: Public Schooling in Southeast Wisconsin: 2017. In this year’s analysis, we find reason for cautious optimism regarding some measures of academic achievement, while other longstanding challenges endure. Measures of college readiness and district report cards point to some progress for the region, while math and reading proficiency levels and academic achievement gaps remain as wide as ever.

The 2016-17 school year was one of relative stability with regard to accountability and assessment, however. School and district report cards are structured much as they were the previous year. We found the same number of districts (68) were rated as exceeding or significantly exceeding expectations as was the case in 2015-16, and none failed to meet expectations in 2016-17. Moreover, 2016-17 marked the second consecutive administration of the Forward Exam, making year-over-year comparisons of math and reading achievement possible for the first time since 2014-15.

At the same time, the “the public schooling” landscape in Wisconsin continues to expand with the help of recent provisions in the 2017-2019 state budget. Total state funding in this biennium across all three sectors — traditional public, charter, and choice — has reached historical highs. In addition, enrollments in both charter and choice schools stand to accelerate in future years.

Meanwhile, enrollment in public school districts is still falling, although at a slower pace than in previous years. The budget contained a number of other provisions affecting public education in Wisconsin such as special education vouchers, changes to teacher licensure rules, and funding for school-related mental health services, which we briefly describe in the report.

Other key findings in the Forum’s 2016-17 public schooling report include:

  • Pace of school district enrollment decline abating. Public school district enrollment continues to fall, but at a slower rate than in the recent past. Districts enrolled 817 fewer students in 2016-17 relative to the previous year, a loss of only 0.3%. This comes on the heels of larger one-year losses over the past two years (1.2% in 2015-16 and 0.8% in 2014-15).
  • Minority enrollment continues to grow steadily. Students of color now make up 44.4% of all students in the region. This reflects a steady upward climb in recent years (from 42.7% in 2014-15 and 43.3% in 2015-16).
  • Proficiency levels in math and English Language Arts (ELA) remain alarmingly low. Similar to the prior year, at every grade between 3rd and 8th grades, the share of the region’s students who demonstrate proficiency or higher in either math or ELA is well below 50%. This stubborn trend that has persisted since 2011 as measured by three distinct statewide assessments (WKCE, Badger, and Forward).
  • News mixed on college readiness indicators: The composite ACT score for the region in 2015-16 was 21.1, a slight uptick (0.2 points) over 2014-15 and a point higher than the statewide score of 20.1. Meanwhile, participation in AP exams continues to grow (to 19.6%), though the pass rate fell by 2.3 percentage points to 63.8%. Graduation rates in the region declined for the second year in a row to 83.2%.
  • No regional progress on achievement gaps. Gaps in proficiency levels for 3rd and 8th grade math and ELA have not budged since 2015-16, ranging from 40 to 47 points between African American and white students, and a somewhat narrower range between Hispanic students and their white peers (26 to 33 points). Similar gaps persist for AP pass rates. Racial and income-based achievement disparities on graduation rates (16 to 30 percentage points) and ACT scores (2.6 to 4.9 points) also are large and persistent.

We hope our findings, considered both for individual districts and collectively, will help school, district, and policy leaders define priorities and appropriately focus resources as they seek to enhance achievement for K-12 students throughout Wisconsin’s public education system.