Wisconsin Designs New School
Wisconsin is generally considered to be a high-performing state educationally, with the top average ACT Test scores in the nation and some of the highest attendance and lowest dropout rates. However, significant achievement gaps exist between schools within districts and between urban, suburban, and rural Wisconsin school districts. These achievement gaps must be eliminated as much as possible because the economic strength of our state depends on each region doing well.
As the performance of our schools is important to every Wisconsin community, a bi-partisan School Accountability Design Team has been working since last summer to develop a set of standards under which Wisconsin schools can be publicly graded on their performance so that students, parents, teachers, community leaders, and others can better understand the quality of education students are receiving.
To serve on the Design Team, Governor Scott Walker and State School Superintendent Tony Evers appointed public education, parent organization, business, philanthropic, and community leaders, along with representatives of charter and private school choice programs and Democratic and Republican state legislators. I was one of the business representatives selected for the panel.
More Flexibility Needed
Governor Walker and Superintendant Evers asked the Design Team to create a new accountability system for Wisconsin schools and districts because both believe the federal No Child Left Behind Law and its rigid testing requirements provide little educational flexibility. Furthermore, they believe the federal law does not adequately identify low-performing schools needing robust local and state intervention. Superintendent Evers will send a waiver application to the U.S. Department of Education early this year to gain the state more flexibility; the Design Team’s work is intended to guide, in part, that submission.
The Design Team is focused on creating rigorous school and district benchmarks to ensure all students have the opportunity to graduate from high school ready for college or for other types of career success. Overall, we are working to design an accountability system that seeks not only to move all students up, but to also move those students who are furthest behind ahead faster to close achievement gaps.
Members of the Design Team developed both school attainment and growth standards. Attainment measures how a school’s students are doing at a particular time and growth measures the improvement of schools and individual students over a period of time. The attainment and growth standards are based on English language arts and mathematics and currently do not include science and social studies performance. However, the Design Team determined these two areas should be included within the attainment and growth measurements once an evaluation system is created for them.
Not satisfied with simply identifying achievement gaps, the Design Team decided the state must also work with local communities to close the achievement gap for lower-performing schools while making widely available the strategies being used by successful schools. We then designed new strategies for such interventions beyond those currently being used.
Phrasing a Grade
One principal area of disagreement between Design Team members was on how schools should be publicly graded. I argued last December for using a letter grade such as “A, B, C, D, or F” because I believe this grading standard would more likely be readily understood by all students, parents, teachers, and other interested persons. My belief is based in part from prior state consumer protection work where we knew we had to design materials and messages that could be understood by people of differing abilities.
While Governor Walker, the Senate and Assembly education committee chairpersons, and representatives of the School Boards Association and Wisconsin Association of Independent Colleges and Universities supported this position, we were a minority. The majority, including Superintendent Evers, argued for a system that utilizes phrases rather than letter grades to describe a school’s performance because they believe this type of system is less likely to “brand” a low-performing school. The exact phrases have not yet been determined, but I hope they will be a meaningful guide to how the school and its students are really doing.
Though one of the relatively few Design Team members who is not a full-time educational professional, I believe bring an important perspective as a parent of two children in the public schools, as the spouse of a school board member in a rural school district, and as a representative of cooperative members across the state.
The Design Team’s final report will be made available early in 2012 to the public for comment. Please check Cooperative Network’s website at www.cooperativenetwork.coop for more information. I plan to provide an additional summary of the Design Team’s work in a future Consumer Checkpoint article.