Beth Milne is a past member of the 50CAN team. 

A lie repeated often enough becomes the truth. For decades, the people of Wisconsin have been misguided and comforted by such a lie: our “top-ranked” ACT scores.

Year after year, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction announces a new state average ACT score and advertises a first- or second-place national ranking. The media picks up the mythmaking from here, repeating these claims as proof of superior students and schools.

Even sparring elected officials describe our education system as a national leader, citing top-of-the-nation ACTs. Republican Governor Scott Walker touted the ranking to bolster his education agenda. And the state Democratic Party used the same claim to push back.

Over time, Wisconsin’s ACT – and educational – preeminence became an article of faith on par with the unqualified greatness of the Green Bay Packers.

But it was all a lie. Or at least a well-produced and politically expedient myth that mirrored what we all believed to be true about our schools, communities and state. We saw what we wanted to see and found comfort in that vision. However, school leaders and policy experts have long known the real truth: Our ACT ranking was based on incomplete results.

For generations, only the self-selecting “college bound” sat for the exam. In 2014, less than three-quarters of Wisconsin juniors took the ACT. When I took the ACT as a high school junior in 2003, I was joined by only 57 percent of my peers statewide.

Year after year, state leaders, school leaders and others knowingly boasted about the quality of our education system based on incomplete data. Worse yet, these scores and rankings provided cover for not digging deeper and ensuring all students, regardless of background, were being effectively prepared for life after high school. Our K-12 system is for every student, not just the high flyers.

Beginning last year, every junior is now required to take the ACT. And the 2015 results were released yesterday – the first complete ACT results ever.

Here’s what we now know:

  • Wisconsin juniors scored a 20.0 last year.
  • National data for the class of 2016 is not available, but Kentucky and Michigan juniors in the class of 2015, where all students take the ACT, scored about the same.
  • Wisconsin’s achievement gap remains evident in these results: African-American students scored an average of 15.6 and Latino students scored 17.2, compared to white students’ 20.8.

The new results will surprise many Wisconsinites. And the forthcoming drop in official state rankings will jolt us again later in the year. Expectedly, some are already pointing fingers and assigning blame.

Regardless of scores, this is a landmark moment for the Badger State. For the first time, we have a complete look at how all juniors are doing on a rigorous, national assessment—data we can analyze and use to make our schools more effective for every student. And we’re providing the opportunity to receive a critical credential for college admissions and scholarships to all students.

Most importantly, we have busted the dangerous myth that our schools don’t need to change.  Now, with a deep breath and clear eyes, let’s stop lying to ourselves and build an education system we can be proud of—for real this time.


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