Here is my full column for the Washington County Daily News that ran yesterday.
With school back in full swing, the MacIver Institute’s Ola Lisowski completed a comprehensive review of the state of education in Wisconsin. The data gives some insight into how well our education system is serving our kids and raises some questions. One is left wondering, however, why Wisconsin’s politicians insist that throwing more money into education is the only answer.
Overall, ACT achievement scores have remained flat. In 2017, the average ACT score for graduating students was 20.5. That was the exact same as in 2016. Prior to 2016, the average ACT score remained flat at 22.0 or 22.1, but there was a change in participation requirements in 2016.
Until 2016, students only took the ACT if they were intending to go to college or just wanted to take the test. Starting in 2016, Wisconsin began requiring all enrolled students to take the ACT and taxpayers pay for the exams. Although students can still opt-out, the new rules pushed the participation rate for taking the ACT from the 63.5 percent in 2015 to 92.1 percent in 2016 and 2017. The fact that a much larger number of kids are taking the ACT — including many who do not have any intention of attending college — necessarily lowers the average.
Compared to the other 16 states that require all students to take the ACT, Wisconsin’s average is third best. Only Colorado and Minnesota do better.
Another metric for which longitudinal data is available is Advanced Placement course participation and results. Average scores for AP tests have been trending slightly down since 2010. In 2011, 68 percent of students scored a 3 or better on AP exams and 65.9 percent scored that well last year. But the good news is that more and more kids are taking AP exams. Last year, 57 percent more AP exams were taken as compared to the 2010-2011 school year. Much like with the ACT, broader participation usually pushes the average down, so it is good to see so little decline with the surge in participation.
Graduation rates have increased slightly since 2011 from 87 percent to 88.6 percent in 2017. That beats the national average of 84 percent. The real news in the much better graduation rates for some minority groups. The Hispanic and Latino graduation rate jumped from 72 percent in 2011 to 79.9 percent in 2016. The graduation rate for Native American kids grew from 71.7 percent in 2011 to 77.8 percent in 2016. Asian and black graduation rates increased by 0.5 percent and 0.4 percent, respectively. More kids are graduating and that is good news.
Unfortunately, we must temper the good news about the graduation rate with the data about remedial education. For many years, colleges have offered remedial education classes for incoming students.
They are classes for kids who are accepted and enrolled into the college, but need to shore up their core math or English skills.
Wisconsin began requiring in 2016 that UW System schools track which students need remedial education and the high schools that graduated those kids. The results are not good. Roughly 20 percent of all incoming students in the UW System require some form of remedial classes. These students graduated from 184 high schools. That means that almost 36 percent of Wisconsin high schools are sending kids to college who are not proficient in math or English. Not only is that indictment of those high schools, but it is a tremendous added expense to those kids who have to pay for remedial education they should have already received.
There is a lot more data on school performance. I invite you to read the overview at the MacIver Institute or dig through the Department of Public Instruction data yourself. A couple of insights bubble to the top after wading through the data. First, Wisconsin’s schools are fairly decent, for the most part, but there is a lot of room for improvement. Second, the performance has remained fairly consistent for the years despite taxpayers spending more and more every year.
This makes the politicians’ response all too disappointing. Tony Evers, the Democratic candidate for governor, has one answer to every question about education: Spend more money. This is despite the fact that spending more has no measurable impact on educational outcomes. Gov. Scott Walker has had a strong record of actual education reform, but has fallen into the same spending paradigm. This election, he is hanging his hat on the fact that Wisconsin increased spending on education and is spending more than ever.
The reason that politicians conflate more government spending with improving educational outcomes is as lazy as it is stupid. It is an easy way for them to demonstrate that they are “doing something.” In fact, they are doing nothing but wasting more money. The outcomes matter — not the spending.