Illustration by Chris Whetzel.
For years, Wisconsin was a national leader in third- and fourth-grade reading scores. The state’s high-water mark came in 1994, when Wisconsin placed third in the country in a ranking by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and effectively plateaued. By 2011, our growth had slipped below 35 other states and jurisdictions – dropping its score to the middle of the pack.
The task force’s other recommendations are myriad and include improved screening of student progress in reading, increased family involvement, and implementing more programs aimed squarely at early-childhood literacy – and these lesser-known goals haven’t taken off in the same way as WEES. “The task force has seen a lot of pushback from districts,” says member Tony Pedriana, a retired Milwaukee Public Schools principal and author of Leaving Johnny Behind: Overcoming Barriers to Literacy, a book that promotes a more regimented approach to reading education. “We just keep going on about our merry way, not changing the curriculum to match what the data is telling us. These kids are getting the short end of the stick, and it’s disheartening.”
Reading scores have changed little in the state since Read to Lead issued its recommendations. A change in how the state’s standardized WKCE exams are scored, effective with the 2012-13 school year, further complicates the picture. Between that year and 2013-14, third-grade reading scores at MPS actually dropped from 16.2 percent proficiency to 15.4 percent, and proficiency among fourth-graders rose less than 2 percent. While running for governor, in April, Walker claimed that third-grade reading scores in Wisconsin had risen under his leadership, and PolitiFact rated this assertion “mostly true,” since the statewide average had improved by less than 1 percent over four years.
A charter school, Central City Cyberschool, received the only grant given to a school in Milwaukee, $40,516 for training and “for students to build at-home libraries.” The hope here, like at all schools, is to prepare kids for a lifetime of reading to learn, as opposed to learning to read.