Faced with Enormous Opportunity Gap, Wisconsin Has Reduced Resources for Schools

Friday, November 8, 2013 at 3:21 PM by

The achievement gap between black students and white students in Wisconsin is the largest in any state, according to a new national report card published this week. This news is especially alarming given that Wisconsin’s cuts to education are among the deepest in the country, leaving Wisconsin schools with limited resources to address the opportunity gap facing students.

The Nation’s Report Card, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, assesses the reading and math skills of 4th graders and 8th graders, and rates students’ performance on a scale. Students scoring above a certain level are deemed to be proficient at math or reading. Results for 2013 were released this week, and can be seen at this site.

Unfortunately, the report card shows that black students in Wisconsin are achieving at very low levels. Across the board, black students in Wisconsin scored worse than black students in almost any other state. Here is how black students in Wisconsin fared on the assessments compared to students in other states:

  • In 4th grade math: 4th worst average score among the states;
  • In 4th grade reading: 2nd worst;
  • In 8th grade math: 3rd worst; and
  • In 8th grade reading: Worst.

The low achievement of black students in Wisconsin is especially jarring given how much better Wisconsin’s white students fare. In fact, the black-white gap in average test scores for Wisconsin students is the largest in the country, for both reading and math skills, at both the 4th grade and the 8th grade levels. Between 40 and 60% of white students in Wisconsin are considered proficient at reading or math, depending on the grade level, as shown in the chart below, but only about 10% of black students are proficient.


This thorough – and thoroughly depressing – article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has additional figures on the gap in reading and math skills, as measured by the report card. (For more information on black/white racial disparities in schools and other contexts, take a look at WCCF’s October 2013 report, “Race to Equity: A Baseline Report on the State of Racial Disparities in Dane County.”)

The very substantial gap in educational achievement between the races in Wisconsin is especially troubling given that our schools have far fewer resources than they did before the recession. Wisconsin schools are already having a difficult time addressing the achievement gap, and deep budget cuts make that effort harder.

Wisconsin’s cuts to education since the beginning of the recession are among the country’s largest, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Wisconsin has cut state investment in K-12 schools by 15.3% since 2008, a deeper cut than 43 other states. In dollar amounts, that translates to Wisconsin spending $1,038 less per student in state aid for K-12 education than it did in 2008, after adjusting for inflation.

The irony is that cuts to education were made to save money, but the racial achievement gap in schools could cost much more money in the long term and cause long-term damage to the economy. When people face barriers to achieving their full potential, the cost of the loss of earnings and productivity, added to cost of additional public expenditures, can run into the trillions of dollars at the national level, according to “The Business Case for Racial Equity,” a new report by the Altarum Institute. Closing the education achievement gap would increase the U.S. GDP by two to four percent, according to the report.

Moving toward racial equity can generate significant economic returns, but Wisconsin must make the kinds of investments that enable schools to address the gap. In recent years, policymakers have chosen not to make those investments.

Tamarine Cornelius 

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