Lagging and Uneven Student Performance
Wisconsin Doesn't Measure Up

For more information on 2015 NAEP data, click here

NOTE: this data reflects Wisconsin's performance on the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress. There is always a tendency to think, "But my school is much better. We met or exceeded expectations on the Wisconsin school report card." We encourage you to check out your school's test data. Schools can be listed as meeting or exceeding expectations with far fewer than half of their students reading proficiently. In past years, Wisconsinites have been able to find and compare WKCE testing results statewide, but Badger exam results for 2015 were not posted as of the end of 2015.

Wisconsin's National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores have remained flat for over two decades, while other states have improved. (Pictured in comparison with Massachusetts, Florida, Washington D.C., and the nation from 1992 to 2015)


As a result, our national ranking has slipped from 3rd to 25th since 1994.
(Pictured in comparison with Massachusetts and Florida from 1992 to 2015)

All Students: 2015
8% advanced - 29% proficient - 34% basic - 29% below basic
Only 8% of Wisconsin 4th graders scored in the advanced category on the reading portion of the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Fully 63% of Wisconsin students score below the proficient level, and 29% do not achieve even at the basic level. Wisconsin students rank 25th in the nation.

White Students: 2015
10% advanced - 34 % proficient - 35% basic - 21% below basic
Wisconsin white students score below the national average for white students, with 56% below proficient and 21% below basic.White students in Wisconsin score 11 points (approximately one grade level) below Massachusetts white students.

Low Income Students: 2015
2% advanced - 17% proficient - 34% basic - 47% below basic
We have a huge drop-off in performance for children who qualify for free/reduced lunch. 81% score below proficient, with 47% below basic. These students score 13 points (approximately 1-1/2 grade levels) below similar students in Massachusetts and Florida.

Black Students: 2015
2% advanced - 9% proficient - 27% basic - 62% below basic
Wisconsin has the second lowest scores for black students, behind Michigan, with 89% below proficient, and 62% in the below basic category. Wisconsin black students score 35 points (approximately 3-1/2 grade levels) below black students in Department of Defense schools, and 24 pints (approximately 2-1/2 grade levels) below black students in Massachusetts and Arizona.

Students with Disabilities: 2015
3% advanced -  10% proficient - 19% basic - 68% below basic
We are failing students with neurological reading disabilities (RD) such as dyslexia. Despite solid research demonstrating the specific hallmarks of RD, ways to screen for risk factors, proven intervention methods, and an agreement on the importance of early intervention, little of value is being done here for these students. Over 91% of our disabled students are below proficient, with 73% below basic. Disabled students in higher performing states are two to three grade levels ahead of our students.

  • 20 % (1 in 5) of people have some degree of RD 
  • ~12,000 new students with RD enter Wisconsin schools each year
  • 74% of struggling 1st grade readers will still be non-proficient in 9th grade without appropriate intervention; RD does not go away with time.

Up until 2012, Wisconsin often ignored the NAEP data and focused on the much rosier picture presented by the state WKCE test. However, these results were misleading due to the low bar our state set for proficiency. In July, 2012, in order to receive a waiver from certain No Child Left Behind provisions, Wisconsin's WKCE scores were recalibrated to align with the higher standards used for NAEP. The result showed only 35.8% of Wisconsin students in grades 3-8 and grade 10 were proficient or advanced on the 2011 WKCE reading exam, compared with the 82% originally reported by DPI. Read commentary in JSOnline article and DPI press release.  Note interesting differences in the spin on this news. Comment on the 2011 WKCE results from Disability Rights Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Board for People with Developmental Disabilities, and Wisconsin FACETS

Wisconsin will begin to use the new Wisconsin Forward exam in 2016, and will need to set proficiency cut scores. Will we resist the temptation to set low standards for our students?

Lost Individual Potential and Societal Costs

Non-functional readers face many personal hardships in both academics and life. Reading failure is a prime factor in behavioral problems, delinquency, diagnosis of depression, dropout rates, unemployment, underemployment, and incarceration. 

Poor readers also impact Wisconsin at large. 49% of prison inmates read below a 9th grade level, and 47% are dropouts. State health care costs increase by $1 billion a year due to poor literacy, and we spend $10.5 annually on adult basic literacy. Especially in these tough times, we need citizens who are equipped to contribute to our economy. 

A  History of Low State Standards

Underlying classroom instruction, teacher training, licensure requirements, and professional development are the Wisconsin Model Academic Standards. Written in 1998, our most recent standards were criticized from the start by a minority report of the drafting team. They continued to draw unfavorable national attention from organizations such as the Thomas B. Fordham Institute as vague, lacking rigor, and failing to effectively incorporate the five essential components of beginning reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary development, and comprehension strategies.

A draft of new standards was issued in 2009, focusing on desirable secondary school outcomes as outlined by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills and the American Diploma Project. However, there was no enhancement to the standards in the area of beginning reading.  A draft of the nationally-developed Common Core standards was released in March, 2010, and Wisconsin adopted the Common Core on June 2, 2010. This will be a positive step forward for early reading instruction, but, as stated by DPI, "The process to implement the Common Core State Standards so they improve student achievement requires understanding the content of the standards, developing curriculum that reflects the standards, and then providing resources for teachers to develop lesson plans to teach those standards.  Click here for a side-by-side comparison of beginning reading standards in Wisconsin, Milwaukee Public Schools, the Common Core, and Florida.Click here to read more about the Common Core and some concerns about its faithful implementation.

Inadequate Teacher Training

Wisconsin's colleges of education, as rated by organizations like the National Council of Teacher Quality, receive low scores for preparing future teachers of reading. One major state program was found to cover only two of the five essential components of reading. Further, DPI was criticized for failing to hold preparation programs accountable for the quality of teachers they produce, yet retaining full authority over the program approval process. As a result, many teachers indicate they find themselves in the classroom without the necessary tools to produce competent readers.

Professional development for practicing teachers is dominated by districts and professional organizations that often ignore the vast body of science while frequently promoting disproven methods and focusing on more tangential issues of classroom control, teacher leadership skills, and motivational techniques. Examples from a typical state reading conference include promotion of unscientific instruction based on guessing strategies, as well as a fundamentally flawed revisioning of Joseph Torgesen's seminal article on early intervention, “Catch Them Before They Fall.”

Click here to read more about teacher training.

Will Improvement in Teacher Licensure Examinations Survive?

The Praxis II licensure examination required in Wisconsin for elementary and special education teachers and reading specialists requires little or no knowledge of beginning reading acquisition or instruction. Only one quarter of the questions concern reading at all, critical knowledge of beginning reading is largely untested, and a candidate could miss all the questions on reading and still pass. Until recently, even reading specialists in Wisconsin have not been required to take a stand-alone exam in reading. In The State Teacher Policy Yearbook 2007, Wisconsin was the only state to receive a grade of F in teacher licensure. Thanks to Act 166, beginning in 2014, new elementary and special education teachers and reading specialists began to take the Foundations of Reading examination (WIFoRT). We hoped this would drive changes in teacher preparation, but we don't see much evidence of that. DPI has yet to issue standards for teacher prep programs that include preparing our teachers in this area. In 2016-17, groups convened by DPI noted that many potential teachers are failing the WIFoRT, and have suggested creating ways to avoid having to pass the exam. This would be a serious setback for Wisconsin, and still leaves many teachers in the field without this knowledge.

Lack of Awareness, Expertise, and Action

As other states have found, a problem this entrenched can only be corrected by action at the state level. Special interests have opposed change, and the Wisconsin legislature for many years failed to take action in this critical area.

Act 166, passed in 2012, will begin to change the landscape by requiring universal kindergarten screening and intervention for reading risk factors as well as a Foundations of Reading exam for new teachers of reading.  However, effective implementation of Act 166 remains in question given past history. The Wisconsin State Reading Association in 2010 opposed similar legislation,  (AB 583 and AB 584) and WEAC and DPI declined to support either bill. The Wisconsin Branch of the International Dyslexia Association responded to WRSA’s position and indicated its support of both AB 583 and AB 584.
The offices of the Governor and the Superintendent of Public Instruction have also spent much time debating how much control mayors and DPI should have over school districts, but, deferring to the tradition of local control, have avoided the critical question of what would be taught in the classroom.