Reading scores for Wisconsin's African-American fourth-graders trail those of their racial peers in every other state and the District of Columbia, according to a national government report that delivered dire news Wednesday about how Wisconsin prepares its students.
Further, fourth-graders as a whole in Wisconsin are losing ground in reading while other states make gains, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the nation's report card. Only 33% of the state's fourth-graders scored at a level considered proficient or advanced by the test; the rest scored at a basic level or lower.
Reading results for Wisconsin's eighth-grade students, the other grade that took the reading test, were somewhat more promising.
Wisconsin's eighth-graders matched their highest score of the last decade. Even so, only 34% of Wisconsin's eighth-graders were considered proficient in reading.
However, the average score for African-American eighth-graders was the same as that for three other states and higher only than the average from black students in Arkansas. The average score for black Wisconsin eighth-graders was even below the average score for the state's eighth-grade English language learners. In other words, black students scored poorer in reading than students for whom English is not their native-born language.
"It's an outrage," said Howard Fuller, former Milwaukee Public Schools superintendent, voucher advocate and head of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University, in response to the latest scores. "And the thing that angers me more is that there is no widespread outrage. We get these statistics, and people mutter the normal this and that, but then everyone goes back to whatever they were doing."
Fuller added: "These are not the children that we all care about. Because if we did, we wouldn't continue to allow this to happen year after year."
The 500-point reading tests were administered to 4,088 fourth-graders in a sample of Wisconsin's schools between January and March 2009. Fifteen years ago, in 1994, Wisconsin fourth-graders posted an average score of 224, which exceeded the national average by 12 points. This time around, Wisconsin fourth-graders posted an average score of 220, and the national average has risen to the same level.
At the eighth-grade level, Wisconsin scored an average of 266, beating the national average by four points.
The percentage of Wisconsin students whose household incomes are low enough to qualify them for free and reduced-price lunches has increased in recent years, reaching 39% for the current school year from 29.5% in 2003-'04.
"Despite increasing poverty that has a negative impact on student learning, we must do more to improve the reading achievement of all students in Wisconsin," state schools Superintendent Tony Evers said.
Although the NAEP results did show that student poverty correlated with lower reading scores, a greater factor was whether a student was African-American.
Only 9% of African-American fourth-graders performed at a level considered proficient. The same percentage of the state's eighth-grade black students tested at a proficient level.
State Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon), a member of the state Senate Education Committee, called the scores for Wisconsin's black students "atrocious."
"It's about time the adults in Milwaukee and the state start to take this thing seriously because we can't continue to have another generation of boys and girls fail like this again," Olsen said. "This is the future of Milwaukee and our state, and we've got to step up and make some serious changes."
In contrast, reading proficiency rates for black students in Connecticut, for example, rose from 12% in 2003 to 22% in 2009, noted The Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based group that argues for educational equity.
"Progress is coming neither fast enough nor vast enough," Amy Wilkins, vice president of the group, said in a statement. "But our most improved states show that when we concentrate on ratcheting up instruction and expectations for all students, we effect real change."
State Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) added that generations of hopelessness and low expectations among black families in Wisconsin - especially in Milwaukee - have resulted in an education crisis that Wisconsinites must band together to solve.
"We created this, and we have to put our hands on this to start making a difference," Taylor said. "We have to start with reading. If you can't read, you can't do anything."
Phillip Dosmann, principal of Craig and Maryland Avenue Montessori schools in Milwaukee, said MPS' four Montessori schools have found a way to effect change locally, and African-American students scored above not only the district average, but the state average for black students on all subject areas of the state's standardized assessments last school year.
He credited the schools' approach of starting with phonetic-based reading instruction at age 3, infusing reading in every subject area and keeping students with their teachers for three-year cycles.
Parents also play a big role, Dosmann said.
"Parents are helpful in terms of following up with homework and reading with their children and enriching their children's lives through different experiences," he said.
Although the standard for rating a child proficient is more generous on the state assessment than on the national assessment, the numbers at Craig and Maryland are telling. At Craig, 71.5% of all fourth-graders - not just African-Americans - scored proficient or advanced in reading on the state assessment in 2005; it was up to 75% by 2008. At Maryland, 62.3% scored at least proficient in reading in 2005; it was up to 70% by 2008. For MPS as a whole, the scores were 62.3% in 2005 and 61.2% in 2008.
At the state level, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction has been working to institute new, higher-level English standards and expand a program that targets intervention programs to struggling students in the early grades, two efforts that state officials cited as crucial to improving students' reading performance.
"We can't wait for kids to fail," deputy state schools superintendent Mike Thompson said. "We have to identify problems very early. And that is systematic change."
Furthermore, Thompson said the achievement gap between black and white students is one that all districts in the state have to work to solve, not just MPS.
"We have achievement gaps in other districts that have large populations of color," he said. "It's not a problem that we have to target in Milwaukee, we have to target it across the state."
Mary Bell, president of the state's largest teachers union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, called in a statement for a "comprehensive solution," including "adequate funding targeted to where it's needed most and shared responsibility between parents, educators, legislators and the general public in supporting our schools."