Wisconsin’s black-white achievement gap worst in nation

by Abigail Becker Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Madison Memorial High School sophomore Demitrius Kigeya solves math problems in his head, other students give him surprised looks. He believes it is because he is black.

“I just pay attention in class and do my homework,” said Kigeya, 15.

Odoi Lassey, 16, a junior, echoed Kigeya’s feelings.

“People don’t expect you to know anything,” explained Lassey, who, like Kigeya, is a high academic performer, plays on the high school soccer team and is active in Memorial’s Black Student Union.

“It’s almost as if you know something, they think you’re weird or you’re acting white … some people think you’re not black just because you try to help yourself out and do well in school.”

The negative stereotype that follows students such as Kigeya and Lassey is rooted in Wisconsin’s dismal racial academic achievement record.

A Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism review of two decades of data pertaining to black-white academic disparities yielded few signs of progress. In fact, the gap has widened in some areas during that time.

Today, Wisconsin ranks the worst in the nation for:

The difference between how well black and white students perform on a national benchmark test.

The likelihood that black students will be suspended from school.

The difference between black and white student graduation rates.

Although Republican Gov. Scott Walker has touted Wisconsin’s educational gains under his administration, students of color for the most part are not sharing in that success. Data reviewed by the Center show many troubling patterns essentially unchanged throughout the tenures of Walker’s predecessors, including Democrat Jim Doyle and Republicans Scott McCallum and Tommy Thompson.

Today marks the first installment in the Center’s investigation, Children Left Behind: Inside Wisconsin’s Achievement Gap, that in coming weeks will explore reasons for faltering performance and ways to improve the state of education for Wisconsin’s poor children and students of color.

Wisconsin has been labeled one of the worst states in the nation for black children based on measures including poverty, single-parent households and math proficiency. Statewide, just over 15 percent of black students tested proficient on statewide exams in math, compared to 43 percent of white students, according to 2013-14 test scores from the state Department of Public Instruction.

Tony Evers, the state super- intendent of public instruction since 2009, conceded there is only one way to describe Wisconsin’s achievement gap: “It’s extraordinarily horrible.”

The gap, he said, has racial and economic causes.

“Wisconsin has a history of not being able to solve this issue and, frankly, not being able to lift people of color out of poverty in any significant way,” Evers said.

“Can we do more in our schools? Yes, and we should do more. But the fact of the matter is, we need the entire state to rally around people of poverty or this will never be solved in a satisfactory way.”

The struggles of Wisconsin’s black students are particularly stark, considering the state’s students as a whole perform at or above national averages on standardized tests, the class of 2014 graduated at the third-highest rate in the nation, and Wisconsin high schoolers are among the top scorers on the college aptitude ACT test. The shortfalls in Wisconsin dramatize the failure of national efforts to raise achievement levels. Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 in an effort to close the achievement gap, placing great emphasis on standardized testing. However, Congress left the law behind after years of partisan bickering. President Barack Obama signed the changes into law Dec. 10.

The new law shifts more power to states and districts. States are still required to take steps to improve the lowest performing schools, but the bill does not mandate specific action if those goals are not met.

Evers said the bill provides an “opportune” time to discuss equity in schools.

“Allowing states to explore different methods, centered on their needs, to tackle achievement gaps will ensure that all students graduate ready for college and career,” he said in a statement.

Test results released in October from the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress, a set of tests known as the Nation’s Report Card, reaffirmed Wisconsin’s poor record of educating black children: The state had the worst achievement gap between black and white students in fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math. This is the second time in a row Wisconsin has been ranked the worst among the states assessed.

Wisconsin also has the biggest disparity in graduation rates between black and white students, according to preliminary data from the U.S. Department of Education. The rate for black students in Wisconsin held steady in 2013-14 at 66 percent, while the graduation rate for white students rose a halfpoint from just over 92 percent to just under 93 percent.

The causes of this gap are complex and extend beyond the four walls of a classroom, often preceding students’ first steps through the schoolhouse doors, researchers say. Factors include poverty and unemployment, historic discrimination, segregated schools and neighborhoods, racial bias and low expectations that damage students' motivation.

Fatoumata Ceesay, a freshman at the University of Wisconsin- Madison who attended Madison East High School, attributes her academic success to two college readiness programs, one through school and another that offers after school and summer programming.

Ceesay, a student of color, said in her experience, students of color were not challenged in school and operated under low academic expectations.

“Usually students of color are dissuaded from trying so hard and that really, if you’re not encouraging someone, you’re going to give up eventually, which is what happens,” said Ceesay, an aspiring photojournalist planning to major in journalism and political science.

Like Ceesay, some students of color at Memorial also say they were not expected to excel. Lassey, for example, said he is one of three students of color in his Advanced Placement biology class and one of four in AP English. He is also taking French 4, the last class before AP French, and will be taking AP microeconomics next semester.

Lassey sought out those classes. But Memorial High School Principal Jay Affeldt said he and Memorial’s teachers now approach students instead of waiting for them to self-select into more rigorous classes to increase minority participation in AP classes.

A 2014 College Board report showed that 3 percent of black graduates in 2013 took an AP class during high school, compared to 85 percent of white students.

Mensah and Natasha Lassey, Odoi’s parents, experienced low expectations firsthand when they advocated for their two sons in situations where they felt coun- selors and teachers were pushing them out of more rigorous courses. The Lasseys’ oldest son is now 20 and attends Madison College, formerly known as Madison Area Technical College.

In one instance, in a conference with an honors course teacher, the couple said the teacher was focused on removing Odoi from the class instead of working to keep him in it.

“Here we are as parents, trying to help him, and all (the teacher) can focus on was trying to get him out of the class,” Natasha Lassey said.

Mensah Lassey acknowledged the importance of accepting responsibility as parents but worries for the students of families who cannot be actively involved in their children’s education.

“(It) boils down to economics,” he said.

Black students in Wisconsin are more likely to come to school hungry, abused or neglected — proven roadblocks to academic success. In fact, the 2014 Wisconsin Council on Children and Families report Race for Results labeled Wisconsin as the worst state for black children to live.

In a comparison of 46 states, Wisconsin’s black residents ranked as the worst in four of 12 indicators including delayed childbearing, young adults who are in school or working, children who live in two-parent households, and adults who have completed at least an associate’s degree, the report found.

As of 2014, 49 percent of Wisconsin’s black children were living in poverty, compared to 11 percent of white children, according to data compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count project.

Although Evers said no state is making strides in narrowing racial achievement gaps, Ohio did shrink the gap in fourth-grade reading, according to the 2015 Nation’s Report Card data cited by Peggy Carr, acting commissioner for the National Center for Education Statistics. Carr added, however, there were no other signs of narrowing the gap elsewhere.

Wisconsin’s high suspension rate of black students is another barrier to their success in the classroom.

A report from the Civil Rights Project at the University of California Los Angeles found that Wisconsin tops the nation in suspension rates, disciplining 34 percent of black high school students. Thestatehasa4percentsuspension rate for white students — the largest black-white discipline gap of all 50 states at the high school level, according to the report. Wisconsin’s suspension rate for black elementary students is the secondhighest at 12 percent, the report found.

“If we ignore the discipline gap, we will be unable to close the achievement gap,” the report’s authors write.

Researchers and policymakers disagree about whether there have been successful efforts in Wisconsin to narrow the racial gap. While DPI has compiled dozens of examples of programs in Wisconsin that it says are working, UW-Madison education researcher Bradley Carl said he has yet to find any program “that has moved the needle on (the achievement gap)” in a big way.

University and state researchers will have the opportunity to find and analyze the practices across the state that are working to close the achievement gap with a $5.2 million U.S. Department of Education grant — the largest research collaboration yet between DPI and UW-Madison.

Despite high achievers such as Kigeya and Lassey, a racial chasm in academic achievement persists at Madison Memorial High School. The school describes itself as a “microcosm” of Madison, drawing its students from neighborhoods ranging from subsidized apartments to upper-middle-class subdivisions. Just over half of its 1,917 students are white, 35 percent are low-income and nearly 20 percent are black.

In the 2013-14 school year, about 9 percent of Memorial’s black students tested proficient in math and 13 percent in reading, compared to 46 percent of white students in math and 51 percent in reading.

Affeldt said one problem is minority students often come into school believing they are not going to be successful because of racial stereotypes.

“It’s hard for me to hear students who feel that they can tell when they’re out in the community that it’s just sort of an assumption they’re not successful in school even though they are,” Affeldt said.

Kigeya and sophomore William Lemkuil agreed, and described feeling like they do not belong in their own predominantly white neighborhoods.

Cars will drive past giving me weird looks like ‘Why are you here?’, like ‘How did you get here?’ ” Lemkuil said.

William’s mom, Amy Lemkuil, is thinking ahead to when William is 16 and getting a driver’s license. She does not want William, whom they adopted as a baby, to drive the rusted old family car dubbed “Black Beauty” that his white older sisters drove because “I don’t want him to be stereotyped.”

Experts agree that any solutions to Wisconsin’s black-white achievement gap must include Milwaukee Public Schools, which house half of all black students in the state.

Milwaukee’s public schools are located in one of the most highly segregated cities in the country and reflect the racial disparities of a city with a child poverty rate of 42 percent — more than twice the state average, according to 2014 Kids Count data.

Half of all black students in Wisconsin attend Milwaukee Public Schools. In 2014-15, black students numbered 42,232, making up about 55 percent of the district’s student body.

In the 2013-14 school year, 10 percent of black students in Milwaukee were considered proficient in math and 8 percent in reading, compared to 35 percent of white students in math and 30 percent in reading.

Black students in school districts from Madison to Kenosha and Green Bay to Racine also graduate at much lower rates than their white peers. The graduation rates of black students in some districts such as Beloit and Racine have improved in recent years. But Green Bay saw a big drop in the graduation rate of its black students, from about 57 percent in 2012-13 to 44 percent in 2013-14.

There are places where black students are not so far behind. In the Beloit School District, 85 percent of black students graduate from high school, compared to 90 percent of whites.

Tasha Bell, the district’s equity coordinator, said Beloit, which ranks 18th in size among Wisconsin school districts, has the diversity but not the size of a large urban district. It has 1,591 black students making up 22 percent of its 7,133-member student body.

Among the strategies Bell uses to encourage minority students to aim high is hosting a minority scholars reception each year for students of color who have at least a 3.5 cumulative grade-point average. Bell said the event helps minority students who do well in school see they are not alone.

“(It’s) a celebration of students of color working toward that achievement gap, defying the odds that we know exist in terms of the gaps and where they are,” Bell said.

There are other signs of positive movement in Wisconsin.

The statewide four-year graduation rate and the graduation rate among black students have both increased in recent years, although racial gaps are still striking. Across the state, the black student graduation rate rose from 61 percent in 2009-10 to 65 percent in the 2013-14 school year.

White students’ graduation rate increased from 91 to 93 percent in that same time.

The five- and six-year graduation rates are also increasing across the board and for black students.

Over the past two decades, while the nationwide gap between the races has narrowed, the disparity in Wisconsin has not, according to The Nation’s Report Card test results.

In 1996, the gap between the average math scores of black and white eighth-grade Wisconsin students was the largest among participating states at 48 points; the national gap at the time was 39 points.

Fast forward to 2015. According to the most recent Nation’s Report Card scores, Wisconsin blacks and whites were still separated by 48 points in math. Nationally, the gap for the same age and subject was 31 points.

It is not just that the state’s students on average perform so well. Wisconsin’s black students scored below the national average for black students in all four categories in 2015. For example, among fourth graders, Wisconsin’s black students scored 193 in reading compared to a national average among black students of 206.

Wisconsin’s achievement gap is on the public’s radar. Last year, the activist group Justified Anger created a plan to address Madison’s disparities. Evers formed a statewide task force of educators and others to highlight schools that are closing the achievement gap. And a top Republican lawmaker has created the Speaker’s Task Force on Urban Education.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, formed the group in August to “provide tangible solutions to help improve educational outcomes” in schools serving high-poverty urban areas.

To date, the task force has toured schools in Madison, Racine, Kenosha and Green Bay and held meetings on mental health, behavior problems and truancy, and improving teacher recruitment and retention.

Most notably, since September 2014 the state has emphasized closing achievement gaps through Evers’ Promoting Excellence for All task force, which identified 39 promising strategies in schools across the state to raise the achievement of low-performing students.

The task force was the first time educators from schools that are closing gaps came together from around the state and discussed concrete solutions for making statewide improvement, said Demond Means, the Mequon Thiensville School District superintendent who chaired the task force.

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