FILE - School classroom school choice

Nearly six in 10 students in Wisconsin are not where they should be in writing or math. And in some classes, and in some schools, it's even worse than that. 

The state's Department of Public Instruction is releasing the scores from last year's state standardized tests. 

The numbers show that most students cannot read or write at grade level from third grade through junior year of high school.

"When we look at the proficiency for ELA [English Language Arts] this year, it's 39.3 percent for all students," DPI's director of the office of student assessment, Viji Somasundaram, said. "It's 40.1 percent for public schools students, and 20.7 percent for statewide choice school students."

Somasundaram said in math, 40.1 percent of all students are at grade level. That breaks down to 41 percent of public school students and 17.8 percent of choice students. 

There is a question about comparing choice students and all public school students. 

DPI said they combine all students together for the statewide number, and do the same for choice students despite the fact most choice students in Wisconsin come from Milwaukee or Racine, which are the worst-performing public school districts in the state. 

The numbers get worse. 

DPI's numbers show a decline in reading, writing and math scores as students move toward graduation. 

For example, 41.5 percent of high school freshmen read at grade level last year. The score dropped to 36.7 percent for juniors last year. 

It's the same in math. Freshmen averaged 43.2 percent efficiency, but by junior year that dropped to 28.9 percent.

DPI's Elizabeth Tomev said schools across Wisconsin are seeing more challenges for kids, and that's reflected in the classroom. 

"Some of our students are coming to us with traumas, they have mental health needs, so there's all of that that comes into the classroom," Tomev said. "We all know that public education is meant to give every child a chance to become an adult who contributes to society. But for the system to work, we have to continue to fund it.  And we must make adjustments so that we don't lose students along the way."

Wisconsin will spend nearly $7.5 billion on public education this year. That is more than ever before. 

"There's a bell-curve," state Sen. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, said Wednesday. "There is a correlation, when you are really low on spending there is an impact on education. And if you increase spending it helps out. But then you get to the other side of that bell-curve, and you get to the point of diminishing returns."

Kooyenga said parents, talented teachers and the system in local schools is just as important as more money – as is accountability. 

"When it comes to action, in Wisconsin we have empowered parents," he said. "They should act on information and decide where they want to send their kids to school. And through school board elections."

Kooyenga said the test scores hint at a larger problem in Wisconsin schools. 

"It seems like there is a lot of momentum to teach other things in schools," Kooyenga said. "What they define as social justice issues. But for the blocking and tackling of reading, writing, arithmetic and history, it just seems like we're moving backwards."

The scores from DPI show that students are in fact moving backwards. The 2018-2019 results were the third straight drop in scores for students in Wisconsin. 

Staff Writer

An industry veteran with two decades of experience in media, Benjamin Yount reports on Illinois and Wisconsin statewide issues for The Center Square.