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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Scott Walker’s Education Boast

In his State of the State, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker claimed his education policies are working, boasting that “ACT scores are up and Wisconsin now ranks second in the country.” But ACT scores are not up, and the state’s national ranking is a bit misleading.

The state’s average composite score on the 2013-14 ACT college admission exam was 22.2 — exactly what it was in the 2010-11 school year, when Walker first took office.

As for the state’s national ranking, ACT does not rank states. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction determined the state’s ranking by comparing its composite score with 29 other states that had 50 percent or more of their students take the ACT test. While Walker said Wisconsin ranks second “in the country,” it is really only among 30 states. Also, by that measure, little has changed under Walker; the state has ranked first, second or third every year since 1994.

Walker, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, delivered his State of the State address on Jan. 13. In it, he talked about improvements in education since he has been governor.

Walker, Jan. 13: On top of our economic success, we empowered local school boards to hire and fire based on merit and pay based on performance, so they can keep the best and the brightest in the classroom. And it’s working. Over the past four years, graduation rates are up. Third grade reading scores are up. ACT scores are up — and Wisconsin now ranks second in the country.

But ACT scores are not up.

Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick says the governor is correct about ACT scores because “they are up since 2013.” But that’s one year. There’s been no change over the governor’s four years.

We compared the state’s most recent ACT scores of the 2013-14 high school graduating class with the scores for the state’s 2010-11 class. We used 2010-11 as the baseline, because Walker became governor in January 2011 and the class of 2011 started the school year before he took office.

Wisconsin’s average composite score — which the Department of Public Instruction uses to rank states — was unchanged at 22.2 when comparing the 2011 class to the 2014 class. As for individual subjects, the scores for English (21.6) and science (22.3) were the same for both years, and math was 22, a tick lower than the 22.1 score in 2011. Only reading was better at 22.4, the best score in the last five years. (All data come from ACT’s profile of Wisconsin — a report that contains scores for the past five years.)

Students from all 50 states and the District of Columbia took the test, but the participation rate varied greatly — from 9 percent of students in Maine to 100 percent in a dozen states. It was 73 percent in Wisconsin.

When comparing its average composite score to other states, Wisconsin included only states that had a participation rate of 50 percent or more. In doing so, Wisconsin ranked second behind Minnesota, whose students scored 22.9. That’s up from third in 2011, but not because Wisconsin’s composite score improved. As we said, the score remained unchanged from 2011 at 22.2. Rather, Wisconsin moved up because Iowa’s scored dropped from 22.3 in 2011 to 22 in 2014.

There’s a legitimate reason for Wisconsin excluding states with low participation rates. A spokeswoman for the College Board, which administers the SAT, told us in 2011 that “scores tend to decline with a rise in percentage of test-takers.” But why 50 percent and not 40 percent or 30 percent?

We called ACT and asked about Wisconsin’s ranking system, and a spokeswoman for the testing service told us it does not rank states. “We let others do the interpretation and slicing and dicing,” Katie Wacker said.

Like ACT, the College Board also does not rank states. “Media and others often rank states, districts and schools on the basis of SAT scores despite repeated warnings that such rankings are invalid,” said Katherine Levin, the College Board spokeswoman we spoke to in 2011.

Whether the ranking is valid or not, Wisconsin has consistently ranked in the top three every year since 1994, which is as far back as the data go on the ACT website. And its students had slightly higher average composite scores in six of those years, most recently in 2009, than at any point under Walker.

And that’s our point: ACT scores have changed little during Walker’s tenure, despite the governor’s boasting.

— Eugene Kiely, with Eden Everwine