Pants on Fire!
Democratic Party of Wisconsin
Wisconsin dropped "from second in the country to 41st" among states where more than half the students took the ACT exam.

Democratic Party of Wisconsin on Thursday, January 14th, 2016 in a news release

While blaming Scott Walker, Democrats err in saying Wisconsin's ACT rank dropped from 2nd to 41st

Michael Dieffenbach scored a perfect 36 on the ACT college preparation test in 2011 while a senior enrolled in the Wisconsin Virtual Learning School. (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel photo)

For years, Wisconsin leaders have expressed pride in how the state’s high school students perform on the ACT exam, which assesses students’ academic readiness for college.

From 2008 through 2014, with Minnesota ranking first, Wisconsin has battled, usually with Iowa, for second or third.

That is, among states where more than half of the students take the ACT.

So, it was a surprise on Jan. 14, 2016 when the Wisconsin Democratic Party issued a news release declaring that Wisconsin’s ACT rank had plunged to near the bottom.

"Newly released information from the (Wisconsin) Department of Instruction shows a dramatic decline in student ACT results in the past year," the news release stated, blaming Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

"Test scores dropped Wisconsin from second in the country to 41st in the nation among states where more than half the students took the exam."

Such a free-fall should have produced blaring headlines.

But there was not even a mention of a 41st ranking in stories by Wisconsin’s leading news organizations about the scores, which had been announced a day earlier by the Department of Public Instruction.

It turns out the Democratic Party came up with 41st on its own -- by mixing apples and oranges.

Scores announced

What made headlines from the announcement by the Department of Public Instruction were scores by younger students on a different test, the Badger Exam.

More than half of Wisconsin's public school students in grades three through eight -- 51.2 percent -- were proficient or advanced in English language arts in 2014-’15, and 43.7 percent did as well in math.

Meanwhile, the department’s release of the ACT scores got lesser billing in the news reports.

That release stressed that the 2014-’15 school year marked the first time in Wisconsin that all juniors (11th grade) in public high schools had the opportunity to take the test. That’s because testing fees were paid by the state.

In other words, the more than 64,000 juniors comprised a unique group in terms of Wisconsin students who have taken the ACT over the years.

Traditionally, when state rankings on the ACT are done, the scores are for graduating seniors -- and include students from private as well as public high schools.

Now to the scores.

The ACT -- which tests in English, reading, writing, math and science -- is scored on a scale of 1 to 36.

Wisconsin’s composite score for the public school 11th-graders for 2014-’15 was 20, according to the department’s news release.

But the way to think about that score is a baseline. There won’t be a score to compare it to until the next set of public school 11th-graders takes the test.

Meanwhile, the composite for the more than 46,000 graduating seniors -- the group whose scores are traditionally used to rank the states -- was higher: 22.2.

The department made a point to state that comparisons between the two scores -- given that they are for two different groups of students -- are "invalid and flawed."

But that’s what the Democratic Party did in its news release.

The party took the 20 score for Wisconsin’s juniors and plugged it into the ACT database that compares state scores for graduating seniors.

That database clearly shows that Wisconsin’s score for the traditional group, the graduating seniors in 2014-’15, was 22.2 (the same score as the previous year).

The new score put Wisconsin, once again, second among states where more than half of the graduating seniors took the ACT -- behind Minnesota, which had a score of 22.7.

Among all states, Wisconsin’s 22.2 ranked 18th.

But the Democratic Party, using the 20 score for the group of juniors, said that score meant Wisconsin tied with Kentucky for 41st place.

A spokesman for the ACT told us the party’s claim "cannot be supported" because it is "not an apples to apples comparison."

And when we shared that with Brandon Weathersby, spokesman for the Democratic Party, he acknowledged the party had "flubbed" the data.  

Our rating

The state Democratic Party said Wisconsin dropped "from second in the country to 41st" among states where more than half the students took the ACT college preparation exam.

The party admits it erred, by comparing scores of two different groups of students. In fact, Wisconsin ranked second in the 2014-’15 ACT testing among states where more than half the students took the exam, not 41st.

For a statement that is false and ridiculous, our rating is Pants on Fire.