Updated: Does Kiplinger’s claim of “weak” Madison schools compared to “suburban” schools hold up?

Results from last fall’s administration of the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam (WKCE) were released last week.  This allows me to update a post from last September.  In the course of including Madison on a list of “Great Cities to Raise Families,” Kiplinger’s, described as “a monthly business and personal finance periodical,” asserted that “Madison city schools are weak relative to the suburban schools.”

That naturally raised my hackles, and I responded by looking at the available data, which tended to disprove the claim.  I compared Madison to the other 15 school districts in Dane County on the basis of WKCE results (for eighth graders) and ACT scores (for high schoolers).  I can now update my quick-and-dirty WKCE analysis.

Here is my explanation of the WKCE comparison from last September:

Since I don’t have the time to analyze WKCE results for all grades, I looked only at eighth grade scores.  A student’s eighth 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 updated results: 

Dane County School District Percent “Advanced” of Non-Economically-Disadvantaged Eighth Graders
1.  Madison 60.7%
2.  Middleton-Cross Plains 59.9%
3.  Verona 58.6%
4.  McFarland 57.5%
5.  Waunakee 57.4%
6.  Mt. Horeb. 53.2%
7.  Stoughton 52.1%
8.  DeForest 51.3%
9.  Belleville 50.2%
10.  Monona Grove 49.9%
11.  Cambridge 48.5%
12.  Sun Prairie 45.4%
13.  Oregon 45.2%
14.  Deerfield 41.7%
15.  Marshall 39.7%
16.  Wisconsin Heights 34.8%

Based on last year’s WKCE scores, Madison was in second place, but we have now moved up to first.

This is only a slice of the overall picture of what’s going on in our schools, of course.  It doesn’t address our serious achievement gap issues.  Nevertheless, the figures do indicate that, with all our challenges, there is still a lot of learning going on in our schools.  

Madison is blessed with many great teachers.  The passion of many of our teachers has recently been on display around the Capitol.  That same passion is brought to bear every day in the classroom, where our teachers do all in their power to reach and teach all their students, wherever they may be academically.  As these figures show, our approach seems to be working, at least for our non-poor students.   

I think most economically-comfortable families are aiming higher for their children than “proficiency” in school.  They want their kids to excel.  In no school system in Dane County is that more likely to occur than in Madison’s.

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