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The “Nation’s Report Card,” the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is conducted every two years, tests a broad sampling of fourth and eighth graders across the nation.
Wisconsin saw drops (some with marginal differences) in test scores for fourth and eighth graders in both reading and mathematics, following a concerning trend in recent years.
The state also saw major disparities in assessment results between Black and white students, making it among the widest in the nation.
Ultimately, Wisconsin did not buck national trends nor did it see any increase compared with the 2019 test scores.
When the latest round of math and reading scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test were released, there was plenty of concern about what had happened to students during the pandemic.
In short, most states and almost every demographic saw drops in math and reading scores, and – often – the gap between Black and white students increased.
So, we were struck by this headline from a news release issued by Jill Underly, the elected state superintendent of public instruction: "Wisconsin elementary school students buck national trends in ‘National Report Card’ release."
A Milwaukee-based nonpartisan nonprofit policy research organization, the conservative Badger Institute (formerly the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute),quickly blasted Underly’s claim:
"Wisconsin’s scores fell by every measure since the last time children took the test, in 2019, just as scores fell for every other state," an Oct. 26 article from the institute noted. "Wisconsin’s scores fell more than some states and less than others, and generally they remained a few points above national averages, but they fell — they followed the trend, rather than bucking it."
The Underly release came Oct. 24. We set it aside at the time since the election was just weeks away, but we’re still curious about the claim.
Is Underly right?
Students hit by the pandemic, national scores cause concern
Known as the "Nation’s Report Card," the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam dates to the early 1990s and is administered by the U.S. Department of Education. It is given to sample schools in every state every two years.
The 2021 test was pushed to 2022 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Those scores for fourth and eighth graders, based on testing between January and March, carried special interest, since for millions the pandemic meant months of school closures and remote learning.
Nationally, math scores for eighth graders fell in nearly every state, with 26% of students receiving a rating of at or above "proficient." That’s down from the 34% reported in 2019.
Among fourth grade math scores, 41 states saw declines, with 36% of the students overall receiving a rating of at or above "proficient." That’s down from the 41%.
Meanwhile, reading scores also fell, with no states showing major improvement in their scores. In all, 31% percent of eighth graders and 33% of fourth graders had scores of at or above "proficient." (The test includes a category ranking above proficient, "advanced," but in making this comparison, the two are added together.)
Indeed, in Wisconsin, scores fell in each of the categories.
Here’s a look at the percentage rated at or above proficient in each area, compared with 2019:
Fourth grade reading: 33%, down from 36%.
Fourth grade math: 43%, down from 45%.
Eighth grade reading: 32%, down from 39%.
Eighth grade math: 33%, down from 41%.
So, what is Underly talking about?
Wisconsin stays steady
In making the claim, Underly measured something different — how students in Wisconsin fared in comparison to students in other states. That is, while most everyone was falling, students here did not fall as much.
For the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, that was the silver lining.
"The headline you refer to is regarding the performance of fourth grade students on the standardized assessment, which showed that group of students performed at or above the national average," Chris Bucher, a Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction spokesman, wrote in an email to PolitiFact Wisconsin.
An Oct. 24 article from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel noted that Wisconsin’s scores did continue to exceed most other states, ranking in the top 10 in math for fourth and eighth grades, as well as in reading for eighth grade.
But, as seen in previous results from 2019, fourth grade reading ranked poorly for the state.
From the article:
"Reacting to the scores, the state Department of Public Education celebrated the relative stability of scores among Wisconsin fourth-graders. Their drops were slighter than what the Department of Education deems to be statistically significant, factoring in the sample size of schools. The declines for Wisconsin eighth-graders were considered significant."
The department noted that point in its response to PolitiFact Wisconsin — that any slippage in the fourth grade scores was not "statistically significant."
On its website, NAEP explains it this way:
"The term ‘significant’ is not intended to imply a judgment about the absolute magnitude or the educational relevance of the differences. It is intended to identify statistically dependable population differences."
State’s racial disparities ‘among the widest in the nation’
What’s more, the country continues to face continuing disparities when it comes to results between Black and white students.
And Underly ignored that aspect entirely in making the "buck the trend" claim.
About a dozen states did not report test scores for Black students because of low numbers taking the test, but among those that do, Wisconsin had the widest gap compared in each category. (Washington, D.C., fared worse.)
According to analysis from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, here is how the gap looked in each of the categories:
In fourth-grade math, white students in Wisconsin scored about 37% higher than Black students. The next biggest difference, 18%, was in Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
In fourth grade reading, white students in Wisconsin scored about 22% higher than Black students. The next biggest difference, 19%, was in California and Maine.
In eighth grade math, white students in Wisconsin scored about 23% higher than Black students. The next biggest difference, 17%, was in New Jersey.
In eighth grade reading, white students in Wisconsin scored about 16% higher than Black students. The next biggest difference, 15%, was in Missouri.
In the same Oct. 24 news release, Underly also acknowledged that the NAEP results highlighted the opportunity gap between Wisconsin’s the Black to white students in both mathematics and reading.
"We’ve known Wisconsin’s racial disparities in assessment results are among the widest in the nation for too long, and these troubling results are yet one more indication that we must close the opportunity gap in our state," Underly wrote.
After the test scores were released, Underly claimed: "Wisconsin elementary school students buck national trends in ‘National Report Card’ release."
But that claim is highly misleading, as the scores here fell in each category, as they did in most other states. That is, they followed the trend. If there was any bucking, it was in that the scores did not fall as much as in some of the other states.
From a statistical perspective, Underly and her team argue that among fourth graders, the drops were not deemed "statistically significant."
But in making the claim, Underly ignores a key element entirely — the gap between Black and white students. By that measure, Wisconsin fared worse than any other state.
We rate this claim Mostly False.
Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, Wisconsin elementary school students buck national trends in ‘National Report Card’ release, Oct. 24, 2022
The Nation’s Report Card, Wisconsin Summary Statements, 2022
National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress – Statistical Significance and Sample Size, Oct. 14, 2021
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Wisconsin reports widest score gap between Black and white students in nation, Oct. 24, 2022
The New York Times, Math scores fell in nearly every state, and reading dipped on national exam, Oct. 24, 2022
Badger Institute, Wisconsin didn’t ‘buck national trends,’ Oct. 26, 2022
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