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Voucher group sues over test score release in Wisconsin

Associated Press

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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin education officials illegally withheld voucher students’ test scores for a day and intentionally skewed them to make it appear the students performed poorly, a voucher group and a conservative law firm allege in a lawsuit filed Wednesday.

School Choice Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty’s lawsuit centers on 2018-19 standardized test scores the state Department of Public Instruction released in September. Only 39% of all students were proficient or advanced in English language arts and 40% were proficient or advanced in math. Voucher students as a group did worse than that, with only 20.7% proficient or advanced in English and 17.8% proficient or advanced in math.

The groups filed the lawsuit in Jefferson County Circuit Court. The filing alleges that DPI released public school students’ results to the media on Sept. 11 before releasing both public and voucher student scores publicly on Sept. 12. State statues require the department to release the assessment data at the same time, the lawsuit argues. Releasing only part of the data allowed the media to shape stories without giving any other members of the public a chance to comment on them, the lawsuit maintains.

“Plaintiffs … rely upon state law to provide them equal access to this data in order to fulfill their missions which involve providing the public with accurate information about school choice performance, but that mission was frustrated by the Defendants’ illegal conduct,” the lawsuit said.

The two groups go on to allege that DPI chose to lump all voucher students’ scores into aggregate results for English and math without taking into account students grade levels and that three different voucher programs exist in Wisconsin — one in Milwaukee, one in Racine and another statewide program — with different income eligibility.

“Combining data from all three programs into aggregate numbers is an editorial calculation — that is, the manipulation of data — not the neutral reporting of all data in a uniform manner,” the filing said.

The lawsuit asks a judge to rule that DPI broke the statues that require uniform release of data and to issue a permanent injunction blocking DPI from providing anyone early access to data, providing piecemeal data to the public and combining data from the three voucher programs.

DPI spokesman Benson Gardner said in an email to The Associated Press that the department released all the data on the same day, Sept. 12. The department gave the media results a day earlier simply to allow reporters lead time to write their stories, he said.

“The department followed the law in the public release of this information,” Gardner said.

Students in the voucher programs can use state dollars to subsidize tuition at private schools. Republicans have touted the concept as an alternative to failing public schools. Democrats see the programs as a drain on state resources that could go to help public schools.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, a former DPI superintendent, included a proposal in his 2019-21 budget that would have frozen voucher program enrollment beginning in 2021. Republicans who control the Legislature’s finance committee deleted the cap from the final spending plan.


Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/trichmond1