New Accountability System in Works for Wisconsin

Published July 20, 2011

Wisconsin parents will have more ways to evaluate schools and their children’s progress under a new accountability initiative proposed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker and state Superintendent Tony Evers.

The proposed system will measure students’ academic improvement year-over-year instead of just compiling annual test scores. It will also track which schools offer advanced coursework and dual enrollment for college credit or industry certifications earned in high school.

Every publicly funded school—traditional public schools, charter schools, and private schools that opt in to Wisconsin’s recently expanded voucher program—will be required to participate, said Cullen Werwie, Walker’s spokesperson.

Evers called the state’s current system, created under No Child Left Behind provisions, “broken, one-size-fits-all accountability.” Wisconsin will seek approval from the U.S. Department of Education for the plan to ensure it remains compatible with NCLB. 

Measuring Achievement, Applying Data 
The current Wisconsin Adequate Yearly Progress Report focuses on graduation rates, attendance, and test scores in reading, math, and special education. The current database isn’t hard to access, but the data isn’t self-explanatory.

“Consider a high-poverty school that moves its eighth-graders, who were previously reading at a fourth-grade level, to a seventh-grade reading level in one year—a tremendous achievement,” reads a letter in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel signed by Walker, Evers, and a number of state legislators and school associations. “Our current federally mandated accountability system, which doesn’t recognize growth as an important factor in school success, would actually label that school as failing.”

Alan Borsuk, a senior fellow in law and public policy at Milwaukee’s Marquette University Law School, said the state standardized test is “not highly respected by just about anybody across the spectrum.”

“Wisconsin took one of the most ‘creative approaches in the country to find ways to avoid the consequences of [NCLB],” Borsuk said. These included setting low standards for initial years and unrealistically hiking achievement standards closer to 2014, the law’s target date for 100 percent student proficiency.

Enabling Informed Choice
Later this summer a panel chaired by Walker and Evers will evaluate public feedback and outline details of the system, which they hope to finish by the 2011-12 school year. Although the methods of evaluation and distribution haven’t been determined, Werwie said, the panel might create a website and send emails or mail letters to parents rating the schools in their area. Schools could receive a letter grade (A through F) or some other performance indicator.

The state will model its system after the “Roadmap for Next Generation Accountability Systems” the nonpartisan Council of Chief State School Officers released in June. The roadmap encourages states to reward high-performing schools with recognition, funding, or more flexibility.

“Ideally, we want to communicate with parents … so that when they’re enrolling their children, they’re able to evaluate the quality of the education in the various institutions in their community,” Werwie said.

Borsuk said better data will hopefully decrease the number of parents who choose to send their children to poor-performing schools.  

“In an ideal world, parents would be tuned in to making careful, conscientious, well-researched choices. In the real world that doesn’t happen nearly as often as you wish it did,” Borsuk said. 
He said although most voucher schools are excellent or average, some are “by any outside examination, pretty terrible.”

Political Rifts Remain
Although some private choice schools objected to the proposed reporting mandate, Borsuk said initial opposition “faded” after the primary state advocacy group, School Choice Wisconsin, signed on. 

“I think people realize now that if you’re taking public money, there’s a pretty good argument for why you have to report publicly how you’re doing,” Borsuk said.

The state’s largest teacher’s union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, declined to sign onto the plan. 

WEAC clashed earlier this year with Walker’s successful proposals to limit collective bargaining for some state workers and cut the state’s education budget by $800 million to help close a $3.6 billion shortfall.

Borsuk said it is “encouraging” that the state superintendent, who also stood against Walker’s bargaining limits and vouchers expansion, is working with the governor on the plan. 

“There’s a thousand ways this could turn out to be inconsequential,” Borsuk said. “The state political situation is still so fractured and emotional. That kind of politics could easily intervene and disrupt efforts.”