Wisconsin: Standards and Assessments Q & A

Advocates for Education of Whitefish Bay, Inc.


Standards and Assessments Q & A


During the 1997 Legislative Session, Wisconsin enacted two laws that brought our state into the thick of the nationwide academic standards and assessment education reform initiative. First, the state required every school district to adopt academic standards and to administer a high school graduation test that every student must pass in order to receive a diploma. Second, the state prohibited school districts from promoting a student out of the fourth and eighth grades unless the student receives a passing score on the Wisconsin Student Assessment System ("WSAS") tests administered in each of those grades. What do these new laws mean for Wisconsin students, families and school districts? Here are some frequently asked questions about the standards and assessment initiative in Wisconsin.


What are academic standards?
Academic standards are clear written expectations of what every child should know and be able to do at specific grade levels. In Wisconsin, the standards were written for English/Language Arts, Math, Social Studies and Science at the 4th, 8th and 12th grade levels. The Wisconsin Model Academic Standards were written by educators, business people and parents from throughout Wisconsin serving on committees under the oversight of the Governor's Council on Model Academic Standards.
What was the stated goal of this initiative?
The stated goal was to create high expectations for Wisconsin children, in order to raise the bar for achievement, and make our students competitive in the world marketplace.
Give some examples of the standards.
The standards fill about 80 pages and are fairly specific. For example, a fourth grade math standard reads: "By the end of grade four, students will: Read, write, and order whole numbers, simple fractions (e.g., halves, fourths, tenths, unit fractions) and commonly-used decimals (monetary units)." An eighth grade science standard reads: "By the end of eighth grade students will: Use the major ideas of atomic theory and molecular theory to describe physical and chemical interactions among substances, including solids, liquids, and gases." A 12th grade social studies standard reads, "By the end of 12th grade students will: Explain how federal budgetary policy and the Federal Reserve System's monetary policies influence overall levels of employment, interest rates, production, and prices."
Did all local school districts adopt the state model standards?
The new standards law required every local school district to adopt the Wisconsin Model Standards or write its own standards by last August. Communities had only a few months to do this, and could foresee the issues arising from testing, so most adopted Wisconsin's Model Standards.
What are the assessments?
The idea behind the assessments, or tests, is that if the expectations are clearly stated, and then tests are written that measure precisely what should be taught, we can see where the job is -- and isn't-- being done. Tests are "aligned" (or written to measure performance of the standards). Wisconsin law requires local districts to administer the WSAS tests at the 4th and 8th grade and currently at the 10th grade level. Current law will eliminate the 10th grade test when the high school graduation test is in place, but there is a proposal in the Governor's 1999 budget bill to reinstate the 10th grade test.
What are "proficiency levels"?
Proficiency levels are cut offs established by the state, which label a student's performance as minimal, basic, proficient or advanced. Proficiency levels are set against an absolute standard, as opposed to percentile normative rankings, which show how students are doing compared to one another. School districts must report their students scores to the state so that district by district comparisons can be made to see which communities and which schools are meeting the standards and which are not.
This part of the initiative holds school districts accountable. How are individual students held accountable?
First, beginning with the current class of 8th graders, every student in a community that has adopted the state model standards must take and pass Wisconsin's new high school graduation test.
  • The students have at least four chances to pass the test.
  • DPI is currently developing the test and no one knows yet what it will look like, except that it is not intended to be a minimum competency test.
  • The sample questions indicate that the test will be quite challenging and widespread failure is expected on the first attempts.
  • The test will take about 14 hours to administer, and students must pass every section to receive a diploma.
  • Passing scores have not yet been established.
Aren't there exceptions to the high school graduation test?
There are currently three:
  • First, a community may adopt its own test instead of the state's, provided that the test is designed to measure the community's standards. This is what Milwaukee Public Schools is doing. Most other communities cannot afford this election. The state is spending millions to develop the state test, and most school districts do not have resources to write a test.
  • Second, under current law, parents may ask that their children be excused from taking the test. School districts must adopt alternative criteria for evaluating children whose parents exercise this option. Governor Thompson's budget proposal would eliminate this parent option.
  • Third, there is a very narrow accommodation for special needs and ESL students. They are not excused from taking the test, but they may receive some accommodation. For example, a visually impaired student may be allowed to take the test is Braille. However, the law still requires special needs students to pass the test to obtain a diploma, unless the parent exercises the opt out. (There may be an argument that the Department of Public Instruction could adopt policies to let these children earn a diploma, but the statute is not clear and currently there is no indication that DPI will adopt such policies.)
What about the fourth and eighth grades?
Often called the "no social promotion law," this law states that beginning with the current K5 and 4th graders, children may not be promoted out of 4th or 8th grade unless they score at least at the basic level on each portion of the WSAS test. Again, special needs and ESL children are not exempted. They must be accommodated, but they must pass to be promoted. The DPI's policy making authority for special needs students does not apply to these grades as it does to the graduation test. Currently, there is a parent option to excuse students from the 4th and 8th grade tests.
Why are people disturbed by this initiative?
Many would agree that the standards initiative has been successful in Wisconsin in that it forced communities to evaluate their learning objectives and improvements resulted from that process. However, many believe that making the high school graduation test and the fourth and eighth grade WSAS high stakes tests (meaning that they must be passed in order to receive a diploma or be promoted) takes the initiative too far. Should one standardized test ever be the sole measure of performance for every single student in Wisconsin? Many would argue that this is simply not fair or sensible.
Some flexibility is particularly important for such students as:
  • the student who "freezes" on tests
  • the student who can read adequately but slowly and therefore can not finish the test in the allotted time
  • the student who understands concepts but has difficulty retrieving detailed facts
  • the student who wishes to pursue a curriculum highly intensive in an area like fine arts
  • the student with such conditions as attention deficit disorder, Section 504 disabilities, or countless other conditions which make a long test very difficult but which do not warrant accommodation under the testing law
  • the student who pursues a vocational or agricultural curriculum
  • the student who is generally very capable but has great difficulty with one area such as math
  • the student whose family objects to standardized testing on religious or philosophical grounds.

There are many unanswered questions surrounding standards and high stakes testing, and children will be caught up in the experiment with no safeguard if the parent option is eliminated. Here are some questions to consider:

  • How many Wisconsin students will drop out of school because they fear that there is no way they will be able to pass this test? What will become of these students?
  • Will our school districts turn into massive test preparation centers where real learning is available only for those who will clearly have no trouble passing any portion of the test, and everyone else spends their time on remediation and test preparation? How will districts allocate limited revenue between regular learning activities and test preparation and remediation?
  • How will teachers in the classroom feel about their ability to contribute meaningfully to young people's lives if their role is reduced to test strategies and learning just what the student needs to know for the test?
  • Where is it demonstrated that focusing a high school career on passing a high stakes test will result in excited, well prepared, intellectually curious lifelong learners?
  • What about all of the children in Wisconsin who, for whatever reason, have the knowledge and skills they need for their post high school career path (college or otherwise) but will not pass every portion of this test? Will this not result in even greater differentiation between the haves and have nots in our society?
  • How is this initiative appropriate for special needs students?
  • How can high stakes testing in the fourth and eighth grades be justified in light of extensive research showing that retention is rarely the solution for struggling students? Why spend millions developing a high stakes test instead of providing additional support and intervention that could actually help struggling students?
  • How much money will be spent on long court battles over an initiative that has not even been demonstrated to improve education? Will taxpayers pay for lawsuits from individuals and representatives of groups denied diplomas or tracked into test preparation programs instead of content classes through our income taxes at the state level or through our property taxes at the local level? Will revenue capped school districts cut programs to pay for lawsuits?
  • Will more parents who see that their child has a problem, for whatever reason, with standardized tests (or one subject area) bail out of the public schools rather than have their child's entire high school career spent preparing for this test?
  • Does the governor fear that parents will use the parent option to thwart efforts to improve education in Wisconsin? If parents exercise the option, their child does not automatically have a "free ticket" to graduate. The local school board must then determine graduation eligibility based on alternative criteria, which would be developed as school district policy in advance of any individual decision.
  • How can Wisconsin justify eliminating the parent option in light of new programs touting parental choice and parental responsibility? (Interestingly, students attending private schools through the state funded choice program are not required to demonstrate their performance through any tests, including the high school graduation test.) Why should an important option for public school parents be eliminated at the same time parents are being provided more private school options?
  • Wisconsin's successful educational system is founded on a rich tradition of local control. High stakes testing with no parent options is one more step towards a state run, state paid for school system which can not know or possibly meet the varying needs of children or respect the education priorities of local communities.
For more information on these issues contact:

Advocates for Education of Whitefish Bay, Inc.,c/o Meredith Scrivener or Connie Gavin4624 N. Cramer, Whitefish Bay WI, 53211email: scrivner@aero.net
email: ckgavin@execpc.com