“Our school scores are better. Our ACT scores are second best in the country. Graduation rate’s up over the past four years. Reading scores are up over the past four years, because we put the power back in the hands of the hard working taxpayers and the people they elect to run their school boards.”

–Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), Conservative Political Action Conference speech, Feb. 26, 2015

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker spoke to an enthusiastic crowd that responded with multiple standing ovations throughout his speech. Walker said his policies to return “the power back into the hands of hard-working taxpayers” are working, despite efforts to recall him from office.

He highlighted the education policies he enacted. And the policies are working, Walker said, listing the state’s record on ACT scores, graduation rates and reading scores. He repeated these figures during a radio interview at the conference.

Are Walker’s claims on improved education records accurate?

The Facts

ACT score

The ACT is one of two standardized tests that measure college readiness. While the ACT is administered in every state, the percentage of students who take this test varies widely by state. Anywhere between 9 and 100 percent of students take this test in each state.

Representatives from Walker’s office and his Our American Revival PAC pointed the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s announcements as the source of his statements. The agency compares Wisconsin to 29 other states with 50 percent or more of graduates taking the ACT. Using that measure, Wisconsin does rank second. Minnesota had the highest score in that group.

Nationally, just over half — 57 percent — of graduates take the ACT. The average composite score for Wisconsin, where 73 percent of graduates took the test, was 22.2 in 2014. Wisconsin’s average composite score, as well as scores for other college readiness benchmarks in the test, are higher than the national average.

When compared to all 50 states, Wisconsin has the 17th highest average composite score. ACT spokeswoman Katie Wacker warned against comparing all states, or even comparing some states to others with 100 percent participation rate. Midwestern states tend to have strong scores because the ACT was founded in the region and grew organically from the Midwest, Wacker said.

Walker uses the ACT score because only 4 percent of students in Wisconsin take the SAT, the other standardized college-readiness test. Midwestern states, including Wisconsin, score well in the SAT because only the best students take the SAT in addition to the ACT.

While Wisconsin moved up from third to second since Walker took office, the change occurred because Iowa’s score went down from 2011 to 2014, noted FactCheck.org.

But Wisconsin’s 2014 composite score is the same as it was in 2011, when Walker took office. In 2012 and 2013, the score was lower by one-tenth of a point, at 22.1. So if Walker is measuring the increase in 2014 from the score in 2012 and 2013, he is correct that the score is “better,” though by a tenth of a point. But the score has been the same compared to his first year in office.

Graduation rate

Wisconsin’s public school graduation rate improved since Walker took office, according to the state’s education agency.

The four-year graduation rate for the class of 2010-2011 was 87 percent. The rate for the class of 2012-2013 was 1 percent higher, at 88 percent. This was the case for almost all subgroups of students — by race, gender, students with disabilities and students identified as “economically disadvantaged.” The six-year graduation rate also improved.

The national graduation rate also has been climbing and hit a record high of 81 percent during the 2012-2013 school year, according to U.S. News and World Report.

Interestingly, the average graduation rate of seniors in the state’s largest school district fell in those years. The graduation rate for Milwaukee Public Schools’ class of 2011 was 62.8 percent. That fell to 60.6 percent for the class of 2013.

Reading scores

Walker said reading scores “are up over the past four years.” According to the state education agency’s numbers, he is correct that the percentage of students scoring proficient and advanced in statewide assessments increased from 35.5 percent in the 2010-11 school year to 36.6 percent in the 2013-14 school year. That was a 3.1 percent growth. Fifth and eighth grade students fell in reading scores between those two school years.

Reading scores varied between years. Walker picked a four-year period in his speech, and the overall trend shows a 1.1 percentage point increase. But between school years 2011-12 and 2012-13, some grades’ scores increased or fell by much more.

For example, the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced in fourth grade went from 33.9 in 2010-11; 35.2 in 2011-12; back down to 32.9 in 2012-13; and then up to 36.3 in 2013-14. For eighth grade, the percentage went from 39.7 in 2010-11; then dipped to 32.9 in 2011-12; then soared to 40.2 in 2012-13; and dipped back to 33.9 in 2013-14. This shows inconsistent performance among grade levels.

The Pinocchio Test

Walker made the point that under his leadership, three measures of “school scores” improved: ACT scores, graduation rates and reading scores. Walker is on point that the graduation rate improved since he took office. Reading scores in general among third to 10th graders also increased. But a closer look at grade-level performance shows that some grades experienced fluctuations (of higher percentage points than the overall growth) during those years.

The most problematic statement is his characterization of ACT scores. There is not an accurate measure of state-by-state ACT comparison because of the varying participation rates. In addition, just over half of graduates in the country take this test. Some states have the lowest participation rates but the highest ACT scores, and some states that require ACT testing and have 100 percent participation have extremely low scores. In addition, his claim that Wisconsin’s ACT scores are the “second best in the country” is misleading, because it is in comparison to 29 other states. It creates an impression that Wisconsin’s score is better than 48 other states, but the state’s raw score ranks at 17th out of 50 states.

It is important to note that growth in these areas was modest. The percent growth for ACT scores was 0.5 percent; graduation rate was 1.1 percent; and reading scores saw a 3.1 percent increase. That hardly indicates an overhaul of the state’s education system, or improvements that can be credited to the state’s top executive.

[Update: In his June 2, 2015, speech at the Florida Economic Growth Summit, Scott Walker’s claim on ACT scores accurately described the scores: “ACT scores are now second best in the country, for states where more than half the kids take the exam.” Kudos to Walker for adding the clarification.]

Two Pinocchios

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