You can forgive people for being a little taken aback by the headline, after all, for years Wisconsinites have rightly taken pride in how well Wisconsin students do on the ACT compared to students in other states. However, the decrease in average performance merely reflects the fact that the ACT is not a good indicator of the overall quality of Wisconsin’s K-12 education system.
Scores did not go down because students learned less; scores went down because a higher percentage of students are taking the ACT every year. Still, in 2012 only about 61% of Wisconsin juniors took the test. And you cannot pin the low participation rate on the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). MPS, to its credit, introduced universal ACT testing in 2010.
As I argued almost a year ago, the rest of the state should follow MPS’ lead. If all juniors took the ACT it would became a meaningful indicator of how well Wisconsin public schools are preparing students for college instead of confirmation that 3/5ths of our students appear to be doing fine. I thought it might be instructive to look at the differences between districts with high ACT participation rates and low participation rates.
Using DPI data (and taking MPS out of the equation) I identified some basic differences between the 72 school districts where less than 50% of pupils take the ACT, and the 346 districts where 50% or more of students take the test.
Districts with less than 50% ACT participation:
- Enroll a higher percentage of minorities;
- Enroll a substantially higher percentage of low-income pupils (as indicated by free/reduced lunch eligibility;
- Enroll a higher percentage of pupils with IEPs;
- Make up just one of the 64 Wisconsin districts located in suburban areas (as classified by the U.S. census);
- Have lower levels of math proficiency (on the WKCE); and
- Have lower levels of reading proficient (on the WKCE).
In other words, the students that are under-represented in Wisconsin ACT results are more likely to be minority, low-income, have special needs, be located in non-suburban areas, and score lower on standardized tests. This is precisely the population our schools too often fail, making it even more important that they are included if the test is to tell us anything about statewide performance. In addition, making sure every student takes an exam that is a pre-requisite to enrolling in a four-year college may open doors for pupils that were not considering higher education.
The Department of Public Instruction (DPI) wisely included universal ACT testing in its granted NCLB waiver request. However, it will only be implemented if funding is provided. DPI, the legislature, and the Governor would be wise to make universal ACT testing a budget priority so that Wisconsinites have a better idea of how our schools are preparing all pupils for life after high school.