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How Wisconsin can deal with impending school wake-up call

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Sarah Archibald & Michael Ford
June 19, 2012

Wisconsin is about to get a wake-up call about the quality of its K-12 education system.


The Department of Public Instruction’s attempt to get a waiver from the federal government’s flawed No Child Left Behind law includes plans to increase testing standards for Wisconsin pupils.


According to the DPI, the effect of this change will be “dramatic” because while Wisconsin students will take the same test they do now they’ll need much higher scores to be deemed proficient.


Currently, 83 percent of eighth-graders who take the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam (WKCE) are said to be proficient in reading, for example. Under the proposal to index scores to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), that percentage would plummet to just 35 percent.


In other words, state testing next year will show substantially fewer Wisconsin pupils proficient in core subjects.


More rigorous standards will demand smarter instruction. Fortunately, Wisconsin is well positioned to use value-added analyses of standardized tests as a tool to improve instructional decisions in ways that benefit students.


Value-added analysis is not a specific test. It is a statistical methodology that accounts for outside factors, such as students’ prior achievement levels, in a way that isolates the specific impact teachers and schools have on test scores. Simply put, value-added methodology gives schools and districts accurate information about the education factors they can control.


A national leader in this methodology, the UW-Madison-housed Value-Added Research Center (VARC), produces value-added data on all Wisconsin school districts. In the past, only 46 of Wisconsin’s 426 school districts used the data. However, DPI announced May 30 that every school district in the state will now have access to these reports.


Access is a crucial first step, but ensuring that schools and teachers know how best to use the data to improve student outcomes is just as important. A new report from the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute makes several recommendations on how the state can better take advantage of this powerful methodology.


First, mandated school performance reports should include value-added analyses of test scores. This would give the public a better understanding of how specific schools are affecting student achievement levels.


Second, teachers and principals should receive training in how to interpret and use value-added reports. The better informed that key school staff are on the ins and outs of value-added analysis, the better positioned they will be to use it effectively.


Third, all schools enrolling publicly funded pupils, including those participating in school voucher programs, should be part of a statewide value-added system. Doing so would allow the test scores of Milwaukee’s highly mobile student population to be tracked.


Wisconsin citizens are about to see that our K-12 education system has substantial room for improvement. As our state continues to move toward improved standardized assessments, it is crucial that attention be paid to how these assessments are used. If used intelligently, value-added analyses can improve the performance of Wisconsin schools, teachers and, most important, students.


Sarah Archibald holds a doctorate in educational leadership and policy analysis from UW-Madison. Michael Ford is the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute’s research director and can be reached at (414) 803-2162. Their paper, “Using Value-Added Analysis to Raise Student Achievement in Wisconsin,” can be found at www.wpri.org.

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