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Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher August 22, 2014

Wisconsin ranks low in expectations on school testing, Scott Walker challenger Mary Burke says

Much attention is paid to how well Wisconsin schoolchildren score on standardized tests -- what percentage of them are proficient, for example, in reading or math.

But states define proficient differently.

So just how rigorous are Wisconsin’s standards?

Mary Burke, the Democratic challenger to Gov. Scott Walker, raised that issue in response to a question posed by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in a news article published Aug. 11, 2014.

The Journal Sentinel asked: "Common Core: Should Wisconsin scrap or modify these academic standards for students? If so, should the state cover the costs of doing so for schools?"

Burke replied by saying, in part:

"Common Core is an opportunity, if implemented correctly, to make sure our young people are ready for the workplace or college. Students will have the critical thinking skills needed to compete with students in any state or any country. We absolutely need higher standards in Wisconsin –- we are currently 38th in the country in terms of proficiency standards –- and implementing Common Core correctly will do just that."

Let's see if, on a national scale, Wisconsin’s standards are relatively weak.  

Federal statistics

One authority on proficiency standards is the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, which does "mapping studies."

States develop their own assessments and set their own standards as to what it means for a student to be proficient. What the mapping studies do is compare each state's standard for proficient performance by placing the various state standards onto a common scale.

The latest mapping study was done in 2011, based on data from 2009. Results from testing of fourth- and eighth-graders on reading and math were used. The study found that the proficiency standards set by most states are at or below what the U.S. Department of Education defines as Basic. Basic is defined as "partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade."

There was no ranking of how states and the District of Columbia fared overall. But there was a ranking by grade and subject. Here are Wisconsin's rankings:


4th grade reading

39th--behind bordering states of Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota and Iowa

4th grade math

30th--ahead of Illinois and Michigan

8th grade reading

43rd--behind all four bordering states

8th grade math

37th--ahead of Illinois and Michigan


Burke’s evidence

To back Burke’s claim, her campaign cited a slightly different and newer ranking from a September 2013 article in the Education Next journal. The lead author was Paul E. Peterson, the journal’s editor and director of Harvard University's Program on Education Policy and Governance.

Peterson uses a different methodology than the mapping study and used more recent data, from 2011.

Peterson also utilizes the fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math testing, but gives the states an overall rank, as well as a letter grade.

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Here’s how Wisconsin and its neighboring states fared among the 50 states and the District of Columbia:




















The three top-ranked states -- Massachusetts, Tennessee and Missouri -- were the only ones that earned an A.

The article emphasized that the rankings list states in terms of how high their expectations are, not in terms of what percentage of the students are proficient.

Another comparison

In July 2010, the Washington, D.C.-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which works to reform education, compared standards in the various states to those of Common Core, the voluntary English and math standards that Wisconsin and nearly every other state has adopted.

The study ranked Wisconsin based on the standards it had in place before adopting Common Core.

For English standards, the institute gave Wisconsin a grade of D, saying the standards "are generally clearly written and presented, and include some rigorous content. Unfortunately, their failure to provide grade-specific expectations creates critical gaps in content that leave teachers without the guidance they need to drive rigorous curriculum, assessment and instruction."

For math standards, Wisconsin received an F. The math standards "are scant," the institute said. "They are provided only for the end of fourth, eighth, and twelfth grades, and very few standards are provided for each grade band."

Peterson, the professor who ranked Wisconsin 38th, told us that since Wisconsin has adopted Common Core, its future ranking could change once it administers tests with the new definitions for proficiency. But those rankings won’t be done for a few years, he said.

Our rating

Burke said Wisconsin is "38th in the country in terms of (school) proficiency standards."

The ranking she cites is from a respected national source and is the latest available, although it is based on 2011 data. Wisconsin has since adopted the new Common Core standards, which could change the state’s ranking in the future.

For a statement that is accurate but needs additional information, we give Burke a Mostly True.

Our Sources

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Mary Burke and Gov. Scott Walker on Common Core standards," Aug. 11, 2014

Email interview, Mary Burke campaign spokesman Joe Zepecki, Aug. 13, 2014

Email interview, Gov. Scott Walker campaign spokesman Alleigh Marre, Aug. 14, 2014

Education Next, "Despite Common Core, States Still Lack Common Standards," Fall 2013

Interview, Education Next editor-in-chief and Harvard University Program on Education Policy and Governance director Paul Peterson, Aug. 14, 2014

National Center for Education Statistics, "Mapping State Proficiency Standards," August 2011

National Center for Education Statistics, "About the NAEP State Mapping Analyses," Aug. 4, 2011

Interview, National Center for Education Statistics assessment division staff member Taslima Rahman, Aug. 15, 2014

Interview, Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction spokesman John Johnson, Aug. 15, 2014

Thomas B. Fordham Institute, "The State of State Standards -- and the Common Core -- in 2010," July 21, 2010

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Wisconsin ranks low in expectations on school testing, Scott Walker challenger Mary Burke says

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