Results from the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam (WKCE) administered last fall have recently been released. I have not had a chance to review the results in any detail. However, the district-level results do underscore the point Dan Nerad has been making at community meetings about the achievement gap plan. Judged by WKCE results, Madison can seem like two different school districts depending on the skin color of the students taking the test.
As far as the WKCE is concerned, white students in Madison continue to do well. WKCE test results fall into four categories: minimal, basic, proficient and advanced. The largest percentage of white students score in the advanced range, the highest category. And proportionately more white students in Madison earn advanced scores in reading and math than white students statewide.
Here are two tables that compare by grade the percentage of white students scoring in the advanced range in Madison and across the state in reading and math:
The WKCE results for our African-American students paint a different picture. Here are two more tables, this time comparing African-American students, but here the measure is the percentage of students scoring “minimal,” the lowest of the four WKCE categories:
While the percentages seem to even out by tenth grade, in the earlier years greater percentages of Madison’s African-American students are trapped in the minimal category than African-American students statewide.
That tells our achievement gap story in a nutshell. The achievement gap is typically measured by the difference in performance between white students and African-American students. Our white students consistently outperform the state averages for white students while our African-American students almost as consistently underperform the state averages for African-American students. The combination of those two facts guarantees that our achievement gap will be bigger than the state average.
The story is basically the same for our Latino students as for African-Americans. With a couple of exceptions, our Latino students score in the minimal range in higher percentages than Latino students statewide in each of the tested grades and in both reading and math. Switching from a race-based comparison to one based on income status doesn’t change the picture much. Non-low-income Madison students do better than the statewide average for non-low-income students; and Madison low-income students do worse than low-income students statewide. I won’t venture into the issue of whether race or income status plays a more significant role in the disparate outcomes.
Here are a few random points that I draw from these figures.
First, the achievement gap shows up early. It’s right there when students take the WKCE for the first time in third grade. Indeed, the achievement gap for our third grade students is slightly larger than for all our tested students as a whole.
This underscores the need for effective teaching strategies and interventions for our youngest students. This year the district has taken the single best step we could take by starting four-year-old kindergarten. However, as far as the WKCE is concerned, we won’t have a way of knowing what impact 4K has for at least four years, since our first class of four-year-old kindergarteners won’t be in third grade until the 2015-16 school year.
We do know that if five-year-old kindergarteners come to us ready to learn, they have a better chance of being a proficient reader by third grade. For many years the school district has given a screening test to incoming five year olds to see if they are “kindergarten-ready.” Here is a table that shows how “kindergarten readiness” correlates with proficiency in reading by third grade:
Grade 3 Proficiency in Reading by “K-Ready” Status
|Not K Ready||44.1%||55.9%|
According to this relationship, if the institution of 4K is able to increase the percentage of K-Ready students from our historical average of 62% to, say, 75%, then, all else equal, when they reach third grade, the percentage of those students that test proficient in reading could be expected to increase from 78% to 84%.
So, four-year-old kindergarten is a big positive for us, though it will take a while for its impact to be felt according to traditional measures.
Second, we need better and more timely assessments. WKCE test results have their uses but there is far too long a delay between the test and the results. One of the proposals in the achievement gap plan is for “All students K-8 [to] undergo benchmark assessments to monitor progress in reading.” These assessments are to be administered at least three times per year and all students who test below proficiency in reading are to receive intensive progress monitoring at least monthly. Assuming that instruction and interventions are appropriately keyed to the assessment results, this makes sense.
Third, we always need to bear in mind that an individual student is quite distinct from the cumulative average of all students with his or her characteristics. For example, even with the large measured gap in third grade reading, about 66 Madison African-American third-graders, or nearly one in five, were measured as advanced in reading. The tendency to assume that all African-American students need special help can lead to diminished expectations even for our high-achieving African-American students, a source of frustration that we hear about from those students’ parents
Finally, the troubling differences in levels of student learning that give rise to our achievement gap present an enormous challenge for our teachers. We as a District have long been committed to inclusive and heterogeneous elementary school classrooms. Consequently, given the gap, our teachers frequently lead classrooms with a number of high-achieving students and a number of struggling students. Imagine how much dedication and ingenuity it must take for our classroom teachers to provide a learning environment where all their students can thrive. It would be helpful to hear from teachers about how they think they can be most effective in teaching all students in classes with such a wide span of developed capabilities, given our resource limitations.
Even test results as generally uninformative as the WKCE make clear the extent of our achievement gap in Madison. From the perspective of the WKCE and based on statewide averages, our white students on the whole seem to be doing just fine while our African-American students on the whole are struggling. This shouldn’t come as news to anyone, but it does underscore what’s at stake when over the next several weeks the School Board starts to decide what components of the superintendent’s achievement gap plan we’re actually willing to raise taxes to support.