'Failing another generation': Some students thrive despite nation’s worst statewide racial achievement gap

  • 13 min to read

When Madison Memorial High School sophomore Demitrius Kigeya solves math problems in his head, other students give him surprised looks. He believes it is because he is black.

“I just pay attention in class and do my homework,” said Kigeya, 15.

Odoi Lassey, 16, a junior, echoed Kigeya’s feelings.

“People don’t expect you to know anything,” said Lassey, who, like Kigeya, is a high academic performer, plays on the high school soccer team and is active in Memorial’s Black Student Union.

“It’s almost as if you know something, they think you’re weird or you’re acting white … some people think you’re not black just because you try to help yourself out and do well in school.”

The negative stereotype that follows students such as Kigeya and Lassey is rooted in Wisconsin’s dismal racial academic achievement record.


Madison Memorial High School sophomore Demitrius Kigeya says he is one of few black students in his higher level courses. Principal Jay Affeldt and JoAnne Brown, the school’s multicultural coordinator, say they encourage students of color to enroll in those courses.


A Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism review of two decades of data pertaining to black-white academic disparities yielded few signs of progress. In fact, the gap has widened in some areas during that time.

Today, Wisconsin ranks the worst in the nation for the difference between how well black and white students perform on a national benchmark test; the likelihood that black students will be suspended from school and the difference between black and white student graduation rates.

Although Republican Gov. Scott Walker has touted Wisconsin’s educational gains under his administration, students of color for the most part are not sharing in that success. Data reviewed by the Center show many troubling patterns essentially unchanged throughout the tenures of Walker’s predecessors, including Democrat Jim Doyle and Republicans Scott McCallum and Tommy Thompson.

Today marks the first installment in the Center’s investigation, Children Left Behind: Inside Wisconsin’s Achievement Gap, that in coming weeks will explore reasons for faltering performance and ways to improve the state of education for Wisconsin’s poor children and students of color.

Wisconsin has been labeled one of the worst states in the nation for black children based on measures including poverty, single-parent households and math proficiency. Statewide, just over 15 percent of black students tested proficient on statewide exams in math, compared to 43 percent of white students, according to 2013-14 test scores from the Department of Public Instruction.

State Superintendent Tony Evers conceded there is only one way to describe Wisconsin’s achievement gap: “It’s extraordinarily horrible.”

The gap, he said, has racial and economic causes.

“Wisconsin has a history of not being able to solve this issue and, frankly, not being able to lift people of color out of poverty in any significant way,” Evers said.

“Can we do more in our schools? Yes, and we should do more. But the fact of the matter is, we need the entire state to rally around people of poverty or this will never be solved in a satisfactory way.”

tony evers

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, Wisconsin’s top education official since 2009, describes the state’s racial achievement gap as “extraordinarily horrible.”


The struggles of Wisconsin’s black students are particularly stark, considering the state’s students as a whole perform at or above national averages on standardized tests, the class of 2014 graduated at the third-highest rate in the nation, and Wisconsin high schoolers are among the top scorers on the college aptitude ACT test.

The shortfalls in Wisconsin dramatize the failure of national efforts to raise achievement levels. Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 in an effort to close the achievement gap, placing great emphasis on standardized testing. However, Congress left the law behind after years of partisan bickering. President Barack Obama signed the changes into law Dec. 10.

The new law shifts more power to states and districts. States are still required to take steps to improve the lowest performing schools, but the bill does not mandate specific action if those goals are not met.

Evers said the bill provides an “opportune” time to discuss equity in schools.

“Allowing states to explore different methods, centered on their needs, to tackle achievement gaps will ensure that all students graduate ready for college and career,” he said in a statement.

Tests show lagging performance

Test results released in October from the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress, a set of tests known as the Nation’s Report Card, reaffirmed Wisconsin’s poor record of educating black children: The state had the worst achievement gap between black and white students in fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math. This is the second time in a row Wisconsin has been ranked the worst among the states assessed.

Wisconsin also has the biggest disparity in graduation rates between black and white students, according to preliminary data from the U.S. Department of Education. The rate for black students in Wisconsin held steady in 2013-14 at 66 percent, while the graduation rate for white students rose a half-point from just over 92 percent to just under 93 percent.

The causes of this gap are complex and extend beyond the four walls of a classroom, often preceding students’ first steps through the schoolhouse doors, researchers say. Factors include poverty and unemployment, historic discrimination, segregated schools and neighborhoods, racial bias and low expectations that damage students' motivation.

Fatoumata Ceesay, a freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who attended Madison East High School, attributes her academic success to two college readiness programs, one through school and another that offers after-school and summer programming.

Ceesay, a student of color, said in her experience, students of color were not challenged in school and operated under low academic expectations.

Fatoumata Ceesay

Fatoumata Ceesay is a Madison East High School graduate and a freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She credits the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program with her academic success and college acceptance. In her experience, Ceesay said students of color often face low expectations from teachers.


“Usually students of color are dissuaded from trying so hard and that really, if you’re not encouraging someone, you’re going to give up eventually, which is what happens,” said Ceesay.

Like Ceesay, some students of color at Memorial also say they were not expected to excel. Lassey, for example, said he is one of three students of color in his Advanced Placement biology class and one of four in AP English. He is also taking French 4, the last class before AP French, and will take AP microeconomics next semester.

Lassey sought out those classes. But Memorial High School Principal Jay Affeldt said he and Memorial’s teachers now approach students instead of waiting for them to self-select into more rigorous classes to increase minority participation in AP classes.

A 2014 College Board report showed that 3 percent of black graduates in 2013 took an AP class during high school, compared to 85 percent of white students.

Mensah and Natasha Lassey, Odoi’s parents, experienced low expectations firsthand when they advocated for their two sons in situations where they felt counselors and teachers were pushing them out of more rigorous courses. The Lasseys’ oldest son is now 20 and attends Madison College.

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Mensah and Natasha Lassey, parents of Madison Memorial High School junior Odoi Lassey, say they have advocated for their two sons in situations where they felt counselors and teachers were pushing them out of more rigorous courses.


In one instance, in a conference with an honors course teacher, the couple said the teacher was focused on removing Odoi from the class instead of working to keep him in it.

“Here we are as parents, trying to help him, and all (the teacher) can focus on was trying to get him out of the class,” Natasha Lassey said.

Mensah Lassey acknowledged the importance of accepting responsibility as parents but worries for the students of families who cannot be actively involved in their children’s education.

“(It) boils down to economics,” he said.

Wisconsin ‘worst’ for black children

Black students in Wisconsin are more likely to come to school hungry, abused or neglected — proven roadblocks to academic success. In fact, the 2014 Wisconsin Council on Children and Families report Race for Results labeled Wisconsin as the worst state for black children to live.

In a comparison of 46 states, Wisconsin’s black residents ranked as the worst in four of 12 indicators including delayed childbearing, young adults who are in school or working, children who live in two-parent households, and adults who have completed at least an associate’s degree, the report found.

As of 2014, 49 percent of Wisconsin’s black children were living in poverty, compared to 11 percent of white children, according to data compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count project.

Wisconsin’s high suspension rate of black students is another barrier to their success in the classroom.

A report from the Civil Rights Project at the University of California-Los Angeles found that Wisconsin tops the nation in suspension rates, disciplining 34 percent of black high school students. The state has a 4 percent suspension rate for white students — the largest black-white discipline gap of all 50 states at the high school level, according to the report. Wisconsin’s suspension rate for black elementary students is the second-highest at 12 percent, the report found.

“If we ignore the discipline gap, we will be unable to close the achievement gap,” the report’s authors write.

Researchers and policymakers disagree about whether there have been successful efforts in Wisconsin to narrow the racial gap. While DPI has compiled dozens of examples of programs in Wisconsin that it says are working, UW-Madison education researcher Bradley Carl said he has yet to find any program “that has moved the needle on (the achievement gap)” in a big way.

Gap large at ‘microcosm’ school

Despite high achievers such as Kigeya and Lassey, a racial chasm in academic achievement persists at Memorial. The school describes itself as a “microcosm” of Madison, drawing its students from neighborhoods ranging from subsidized apartments to upper-middle-class subdivisions. Just over half of its 1,917 students are white, 35 percent are low-income and nearly 20 percent are black.

In the 2013-14 school year, about 9 percent of Memorial’s black students tested proficient in math and 13 percent in reading, compared to 46 percent of white students in math and 51 percent in reading.

Affeldt said one problem is minority students often come into school believing they are not going to be successful because of racial stereotypes.

“It’s hard for me to hear students who feel that they can tell when they’re out in the community that it’s just sort of an assumption they’re not successful in school even though they are,” Affeldt said.

memorial roundtable

Madison Memorial High School Principal Jay Affeldt, right, says stereotyping can hurt student performance. Affeldt graduated from Memorial in 1991, returned as a teacher in 1999 and is now in his second year as principal. Affeldt joined students Robert Bennett and Geresa Homesly in a roundtable discussion on race-based achievement gaps.


Kigeya and sophomore William Lemkuil agreed, and described feeling like they do not belong in their own predominantly white neighborhoods.

“Cars will drive past giving me weird looks like ‘Why are you here?’, like ‘How did you get here?’ ” Lemkuil said.

Experts agree that any solutions to Wisconsin’s black-white achievement gap must include Milwaukee Public Schools, which house half of all black students in the state.

Milwaukee’s public schools are located in one of the most highly segregated cities in the country and reflect the racial disparities of a city with a child poverty rate of 42 percent — more than twice the state average, according to 2014 Kids Count data.  

Half of all black students in Wisconsin attend Milwaukee Public Schools. In 2014-15, black students numbered 42,232, making up about 55 percent of the district’s student body.

In the 2013-14 school year, 10 percent of black students in Milwaukee were considered proficient in math and 8 percent in reading, compared to 35 percent of white students in math and 30 percent in reading.

There are places in the state where black students are not so far behind. In the Beloit School District, 85 percent of black students graduate from high school, compared to 90 percent of whites.

Tasha Bell, the district’s equity coordinator, said Beloit, which ranks 18th in size among Wisconsin school districts, has the diversity but not the size of a large urban district. It has 1,591 black students making up 22 percent of its 7,133-member student body.

Among the strategies Bell uses to encourage minority students to aim high is hosting a minority scholars reception each year for students of color who have at least a 3.5 cumulative grade-point average. Bell said the event helps minority students who do well in school see they are not alone.

And there are other signs of positive movement in Wisconsin.

The statewide four-year graduation rate and the graduation rate among black students have both increased in recent years, although racial gaps are still striking. Across the state, the black student graduation rate rose from 61 percent in 2009-10 to 65 percent in the 2013-14 school year. White students’ graduation rate increased from 91 to 93 percent in that same time.

Chasm wide, persistent

Over the past two decades, while the nationwide gap between the races has narrowed, the disparity in Wisconsin has not, according to The Nation’s Report Card test results.

In 1996, the gap between the average math scores of black and white eighth-grade Wisconsin students was the largest among participating states at 48 points; the national gap at the time was 39 points.

Fast forward to 2015. According to the most recent Nation’s Report Card scores, Wisconsin blacks and whites were still separated by 48 points in math. Nationally, the gap for the same age and subject was 31 points.

It is not just that the state’s students on average perform so well. Wisconsin’s black students scored below the national average for black students in all four categories in 2015. For example, among fourth graders, Wisconsin’s black students scored 193 in reading compared to a national average among black students of 206.

Disparity sparks public debate

Wisconsin’s achievement gap is on the public’s radar. Last year, the activist group Justified Anger created a plan to address Madison’s disparities. Evers formed a statewide task force of educators and others to highlight schools that are closing the achievement gap. And Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, created the Speaker’s Task Force on Urban Education.

Evers’ Promoting Excellence for All task force identified 39 promising strategies in schools across the state to raise the achievement of low-performing students.

Gloria Ladson-Billings, a professor in UW-Madison’s School of Education said at a panel Nov. 5 sponsored by Madison’s Simpson Street Free Press that calling it a “nagging achievement gap” does not do it justice.

“We’re in crisis,” Ladson-Billings said. “It is not nagging, it is persistent, it is structural. We’re at a point where we cannot go failing another generation of people.”

Wisconsin’s “stagnant” gaps can largely be traced to the influence of economic disparities and trends, said Carl, the UW-Madison education researcher.

Up until the 1950s and ’60s, manufacturing-based cities like Milwaukee had enough jobs to support a middle-class lifestyle for those with only a high school education, Carl said. As manufacturing jobs began to disappear in about the 1970s, he said, Milwaukee and other “Rust Belt” cities saw a decline in population and a shift to an increasingly poor and non-white population.

Because of  “white flight” to the suburbs, Carl said, housing values fell in the city, resulting in fewer resources for school districts, which relied largely on local property taxes.

“Cumulatively, the result of job losses, falling property values and rising crime rates for inner-city school districts has been a slow and steady process of decline, which has been very difficult to reverse,” Carl said.

“This becomes this vicious cycle that, by and large, we’re fully in the throes of.”

Racial academic disparities are often also rooted in greater social inequality issues, said Eric Grodsky, a UW-Madison associate professor in sociology and educational policy studies who researches disparities in higher education. Grodsky said Wisconsin’s black residents are, on average, worse off than in other states with a similar racial makeup, and the state lacks an “established” black middle class.

The Race to Equity report, released in 2013 by the nonprofit Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, affirms Grodsky’s analysis. Compared to non-Hispanic whites, blacks in Wisconsin were nearly four times as likely to be unemployed and four times as likely to be living in poverty, earning about half as much in median household income as whites.

Few proven remedies to narrow gap

Carl said there are not enough large-scale evaluations showing which programs are successful in closing the achievement gap.

He could only point to one set of programs that he said has been proven successful: the in-school Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) class and the related Teens of Promise (TOPS) programs that Madison East’s Ceesay credited with helping her get into UW-Madison.

TOPS is an after-school and summer program that works with AVID to prepare the “academic middle” for college through summer internships, tutoring and mentorships and college visits. The programs are an effort of the Madison School District and the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County.

Carl said the fact that there are so few programs in Wisconsin backed up by sufficient research “is pretty indicative of the problem.”

But a newly announced $5.2 million federal grant may change that. Over the next four years, education researchers from DPI and the Wisconsin Center for Education Research will analyze data from all public schools to identify practices across the state that are working to close the achievement gap.

After the research center identifies schools where racial and economic achievement gaps are narrowing, Grodsky will lead a university research team to conduct on-site interviews with school officials to identify effective practices that other districts can replicate.

Grodsky said the work will build on Evers’ Promoting Excellence for All task force by figuring out “the extent to which those ideas will have traction in the broader state.”

Langston Evans, who runs Madison TOPS, said it will take more than schools. Nonprofit organizations and local businesses also must exercise a “collective will” to help students.

“If we aren’t coordinating and collaborating the services that bridge those together, then everybody is going to feel like the other person is to blame,” Evans said.

Collaboration involves parents and families, too.

Amy Lemkuil is as involved in her son William’s education as she was with her two older daughters, who are now in college. Lemkuil acknowledges that with her resources and flexible job, she can spend time at school, pay a tutor and work around William’s school and sports schedule.

“There just is socioeconomic privilege,” Lemkuil said.

Where these resources are lacking, community members such as Pat Wongkit step in. Wongkit is the program coordinator at Northport Community Learning Center, located within a low-income apartment complex on Madison’s north side.

She acknowledges some parents are working multiple jobs, caring for children at home and enduring numerous stresses. But they “can’t just hand over the kids too and have us do all the work,” Wongkit said.

She encourages parents to check students’ backpacks for homework, keep track of school events and send their children to learning center programs.

“We count on the parents to help us, making sure the kids are here,” Wongkit said. “We need parents, we need a community and we need the schools, so all of us need to be in sync.”

A reason to come to school

Student leaders also can play a part. Some of Memorial’s Black Student Union members, including Kigeya and Lassey, said they are working to change how others perceive minority students at school and in the greater Madison community.

Odoi Lassey

Odoi Lassey, a junior at Madison Memorial High School, can count on one hand the number of minority students in his advanced placement classes. This semester, he is taking Advancement Placement biology and English.


Danaejuh Sheppard, a senior, said she and other BSU members are creating a peer-to-peer program to partner younger students with older student mentors. She plans to attend college to be a pediatrician, paramedic or a nurse practitioner.

At a recent roundtable discussion on the achievement gap at Memorial, BSU students said a variety of factors may be at play: feeling disconnected from teachers, lack of encouragement at home and different learning styles that they say teachers are not accommodating.

“Our African-American students aren’t really connecting to (teachers),” Sheppard said. “They just think teachers don’t understand where they’re coming from and their history.

“Other people can help, they can tell you go to class, they can tell you to do certain things, but it’s also up to you to think, ‘Oh maybe I do need to do this, actually go to class,’” she added. “But you can’t really have someone force you to do something you don’t want to do.”

Students also need a plan, Lassey said, whether or not that includes college. Lassey is taking a law and ethics course and says he wants to get a law degree like his father and maybe practice corporate law. Kigeya aims to play soccer in college and may pursue a career in physical therapy.

Robert Bennett, a junior who wants to pursue college basketball and veterinary science in college, said racial stereotypes will never go away — a belief expressed by almost all the students at the roundtable in August. But he said self-motivation might help diminish them.

“Instead of having a reason to leave, having a reason to come here and do what they have to do, and then after awhile stereotypes will start going down,” Bennett said. “(Stereotypes will) still be there, but if the majority of people that are black start doing what the normal is — going to school, doing everything you have to do — then stereotypes will slowly start to go away.”

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The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.