The State Journal has an editorial today about another high national ranking for Madison. Kiplinger’s, which the State Journal describes as “a monthly business and personal finance periodical,” has a slideshow on its website on ten “Great Cities for Raising Families.” Madison makes the list. But Kiplinger is not unreserved in its praise. It ranks Madison’s schools “4” on a scale of 10 (the next lowest ranking for any of the other nine selected cities is “6”) and asserts “Madison city schools are weak relative to the suburban schools.”
The Kiplinger piece states that the school rankings come from an outfit called GreatSchools.org. I looked at the GreatSchools website and could find no information on its methodology for ranking the quality of a city’s schools compared to other cities in the country, as it apparently purports to do. So, I have no way of knowing why Madison’s schools are ranked “4” on a scale of 10 while the schools in, say, Pocatello, Idaho rate a “6” and College Station, Texas schools rack up an “8”. (Anyone anxious to move from Madison to College Station?)
We do have some basis to examine Kiplinger’s statement that Madison schools are “weak” compared to suburban schools. Before we turn to that examination, though a couple of side notes. First, I certainly recognize that it is disingenuous to complain about one arbitrary input into a generally high ranking for Madison that is based on nothing but arbitrary inputs.
Second, let’s pause for a moment to give some props to the State Journal. I’m not always a fan of the paper’s editorials, but I agree wholeheartedly with these three right-on-the-money paragraphs of today’s effort:
And Madison, in some ways, is ahead of the ‘burbs. It consistently graduates some of the highest-achieving students in the state. It offers more kinds of classes and clubs. Its diverse student population can help prepare children for an increasingly diverse world.
How much the negative view of Madison schools is based on perception and how much on reality is unclear. What is clear is that Madison can’t let its schools slip. A city that loses its schools is in trouble. Just ask Milwaukee.
That’s why Madison schools need to tout their strengths while aggressively tackling their vexing problems.
Now on to the data. DPI’s website contains a treasure trove of information on school performance on the WKCE, Wisconsin’s state-wide standardized test, and other measures of academic performance. I spent some time on a quick-and-dirty analysis of the performance of students at MMSD schools compared to the students enrolled in the 15 other Dane County school districts.
Since I don’t have the time to analyze WKCE results for all grades, I looked only at eighth grade scores. A student’s eight grade performance is more significant than his or her performance in, say, third grade. You’d rather see a student test in the proficient range in third grade and advanced in eighth grade than to fall into the advanced range in third grade and proficient in eighth.
Overall test results can be seriously skewed by demographics. On average, economically disadvantaged students score lower than non-economically-disadvantaged students. A district that has relatively more economically disadvantaged students will tend to have lower average test results than a district with relatively fewer economically disadvantaged students, all else equal. In order to make my comparison more meaningful, I limited it to non-economically-disadvantaged students.
The WKCE categorizes student results into four categories: minimum, basic, proficient and advanced. I based my comparison on the percentage of students who fell into the advanced category rather than the more common grouping of both proficient and advanced. For a non-economically-disadvantaged student, achieving a “proficient” ranking isn’t much to brag about, particularly when more than half of the student’s peers may score in the advanced range. Also, the percentages of non-economically-disadvantaged students who score in either the proficient or advanced categories are frequently so high (above 90%) that comparisons aren’t all that useful.
The eighth grade WKCE tests students in five subject areas: Reading, language arts, math, science and social studies. For each district, I calculated the average of the percentage of non-economically-disadvantaged eighth graders who tested in the advanced category in the five subject areas.
Here are the Dane County school districts ranked from top to bottom on the average percentage of non-economically-disadvantaged 8th graders who scored “advanced” on the most recent WKCE tests:
1. Verona 59.3%
2. Madison 59.1%
3. Middleton-Cross Plains 58.3%
4. Waunakee 56.1%
5. Deerfield 55.9%
6. Sun Prairie 54.0%
7. Belleville 53.1%
8. DeForest 53.0%
9. Stoughton 49.6%
10. Oregon 48.2%
11. Monona Grove 47.3%
12. Wisconsin Heights 47.0%
13. McFarland 43.2%
14. Mt. Horeb 40.3%
15. Cambridge 39.0%
16. Marshall 36.6%
I also looked at ACT scores in order to include high school performance. (The WKCE is given for the final time to high school sophomores in October and so does not measure almost three-fourths of the student’s high school career.) As far as I can tell, ACT test results are not available disaggregated by economic status. However, for districts that do not require all students to take the ACT (as Monona Grove does, for example), I suspect that the students who choose to take the test tend to fall disproportionately into the non-economically-disadvantaged category.
Here are the Dane County school districts ranked from top to bottom on the basis of average composite ACT scores for 2009:
1. Middleton-Cross Plains 24.6
2. McFarland 24.5
3. Madison 24.2
4. Oregon 24.1
5. DeForest 23.9
5. Waunakee 23.9
7. Mt. Horeb 23.8
8. Stoughton 23.4
8. Verona 23.4
10. Sun Prairie 23.2
11. Belleville 23.0
12. Monona Grove 22.4
13.Wisconsin Heights 22.1
14. Cambridge 22.0
14. Deerfield 22.0
14. Marshall 22.0
As the table indicates, the average composite ACT scores for the districts are much more closely bunched than the 8th grade “advanced” percentages listed above. (For those with an unusual craving for this sort of information, average ACT scores for school districts in southeastern Wisconsin can be found on page 29 of this report.) (Hat tip: SIS)
Whatever one makes of these tables, they do tend to contradict the assertion in the Kiplinger’s piece that Madison city schools are weak relative to the suburban schools. On the other hand, I am happy to assume that all the other variables Kiplinger relied upon in finding that Madison is a great city for young families are completely accurate.