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Are the vast majority of Wisconsin students failing to achieve at grade level?
That was the claim made in a recent radio address by state Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt.
The Fond du Lac Republican — a former teacher and principal — chairs the state Assembly Committee on Education. That makes him a key player in any school-related changes the Republican-controlled Legislature brings before Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.
In the Republicans’ statewide weekly radio address on Sept. 19, 2019, Thiesfeldt said Wisconsin has to "do better" on education, especially given the amount of money the state spent there in the eight years of Republican control under former Gov. Scott Walker.
Then he said this:
"The vast majority of Wisconsin students cannot even read, write, or do math at grade level."
That’s an alarming stat if true.
Assessing his claim takes us deep into state and national testing thresholds and some shifting definitions.
Let’s get started.
As proof, Thiesfeldt’s staff pointed to the most recent Wisconsin Student Assessment System results. The annual tests include the Forward Exam for grades three to eight and ACT-related tests for grades nine to 11.
In the 2018-19 tests, 39.3% of students were rated as proficient or advanced in English Language Arts, and 40.1% reached those levels for math, according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.
For starters, calling 60% the "vast majority" is overstating things quite a bit.
But let’s focus on the "grade level" part of Thiesfeldt’s claim. Is it reasonable to say anyone below proficient is also below grade level?
That’s a very complicated question.
DPI breaks the assessment scores into four categories of student achievement: advanced, proficient, basic and below basic. We’ll focus on the middle two since that’s where this claim is centered.
Proficient – Student demonstrates adequate understanding of and ability to apply the knowledge and skills for their grade level that are associated with college content-readiness.
Basic – Student demonstrates partial understanding of and ability to apply the knowledge and skills for their grade level that are associated with college content-readiness.
Katie Scott, a policy adviser in Thiesfeldt’s office, highlighted the "adequate understanding" element of the proficient definition.
"For an exam taken in the final months of the school year, we are confident that parents, teachers, etc. would not prefer the achievement of students at grade level to be described as a ‘partial understanding,’" she said in an email.
Scott also asserted that proficient "has always meant at or above grade level."
So Thiesfeldt’s argument is that proficiency = grade level.
But both sides of that equation are moving targets.
The term grade level is used at times to refer to how students perform relative to a standard set by officials, which is how Thiesfeldt uses it. But it can also refer to what students typically learn in a grade, in other words the median test score for that age level across the state.
We’ll stick to the idea that grade level is some kind of threshold. But it’s tricky equating it to proficiency since the definition of proficient has changed over time in Wisconsin.
In the past, the term was indeed roughly equivalent to what many consider grade level, said Alan Borsuk, a senior fellow in law and public policy at Marquette University Law School and longtime education reporter and columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
But that changed in 2013 when Wisconsin dramatically raised the achievement level needed to reach the "proficient" threshold. The state was aligning its standards to match the National Assessment of Educational Progress — also called the Nation’s Report Card.
In other words, proficient no longer means what it once did in Wisconsin. Can it still be equated to grade level as Thiesfeldt does?
"The answer is quite emphatically no," Borsuk said.
He elaborated in his Sept. 13, 2019, Journal Sentinel column.
"I’m increasingly willing to lump ‘basic’ with ‘proficient’ and ‘advanced’ to get a rough measure of whether kids are on grade level," Borsuk wrote. "And if you do that, you come up with — to give one example — about three-quarters for Wisconsin public school students in third through eighth grade rated as basic or better in English language arts (often just called reading), which certainly looks better than saying well below half are proficient."
Tom Loveless, a former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who authored the group’s annual report on education trends for 16 years, said he agreed with Borsuk that a basic rating on the state’s assessment system tests is roughly equal to what the proficient rating was years ago.
But there’s still more evidence to consider.
A Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction spokesman didn’t take a position on proficient vs. grade level beyond the definitions cited above.
But the go-to source for national testing sheds some light on the matter.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is a congressionally authorized project of the U.S. Department of Education that measures student achievement in select subjects across the nation.
Remember, Wisconsin made changes to its scale get in sync with NAEP. An August 2019 study by the NAEP found the state was quite successful in doing so. The analysis scored each state from 0 to 500 in two subjects at two grade levels to show how high the bar was to achieve proficiency. That could then be compared to other states and the national scale used by NAEP.
For grade four math, the state and national standards were exactly the same at 249. For grade four reading, the score for NAEP proficiency was 238, while Wisconsin’s was 229.
The eighth-grade scores were also very close, with the state and national threshold separated by two points for reading and four points for math.
And here’s what the NAEP has to say about conflating proficiency with grade level:
Myth: The NAEP Proficient level is like being on grade level.
Fact: NAEP Proficient means competency over challenging subject matter. This is not the same as being "on grade level," which refers to performance on local curriculum and standards. NAEP is a general assessment of knowledge and skills in a particular subject.
"NAEP proficient means mastery over challenging subject matter," said NAEP spokesman Grady Wilburn. "We don’t use any terms in NAEP to equate achievement level to what may be grade level in a state. … The achievement level proficient, for example, is aspirational. We don’t define that as something necessary to proceed from one grade to the next."
So the Wisconsin proficiency standard is largely in line with the national standard, and the people behind the national standard warn it should not be conflated with "grade level."
Therefore, Wisconsin should be similarly careful, Loveless said.
"Wisconsin set its cut point at the NAEP proficiency level on purpose," he said. "So it should carry with it all the warnings that go with the NAEP proficient cut point."
For the record, Wisconsin students ranked about average in the latest NAEP data. In 2017, 40% of students nationwide tested at or above the proficient level using the NAEP standard. Wisconsin came in at 42%.
The NAEP study also showed Wisconsin has one of the highest bars for proficiency in the nation. The grade eight ratings were third- and fourth-highest among the states in the study, and grade four ratings came in 10th and 18th.
Thiesfeldt used state test results to claim the "vast majority" of Wisconsin students are below grade level in math and English.
Experts say proficient was once roughly equal to some definitions of grade level, but a dramatic shift in 2013 means that is no longer the case. Wisconsin raised the bar and — predictably — more kids then failed to clear it.
Today, Wisconsin’s definition of proficient is almost identical to that of a key federal testing agency that explicitly warns against conflating proficiency with grade level. They say proficiency is more akin to "mastery" of a subject.
We rate Thiesfeldt’s claim False.
Wisconsin Legislature, Weekly Radio Address: Education, Sept. 19, 2019
Email exchange with Katie Scott, policy adviser for Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, Oct. 16-18, 2019
Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, Wisconsin Student Assessment System results released, Sept. 12, 2019
Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, Wisconsin Forward Exam Information for Families 2019-20
Interview with Alan Borsuk, senior fellow in law and public policy, Marquette University Law School, Oct. 17, 2019
Interview with Tom Loveless, former senior fellow, Brookings Institution, Oct. 21, 2019
Interview with Grady Wilburn, spokesman for National Assessment of Educational Progress, Oct. 21, 2019
Interview and email exchange with Benson Gardner, spokesman for Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, Oct. 16-21, 2019
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Borsuk: What the latest batch of standardized test scores tell us about educational progress in Wisconsin, Sept. 13, 2019
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, State must brace for higher classroom standards, expert says, May 22, 2012
National Assessment of Educational Progress, Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto the NAEP Scales, August 2019
National Assessment of Educational Progress, A Closer Look at NAEP, accessed Oct. 21, 2019
National Assessment of Educational Progress, Wisconsin overview, accessed Oct. 21, 2019
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