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student testing sign file photo

A "Do Not Enter" sign hangs last fall outside a Racine classroom where students were completing a state test that helps gauge performance. 

Students attending private schools receiving taxpayer-funded vouchers in a new statewide program did not score as high overall as public school students on state tests in reading and math, according to data released Tuesday by the Department of Public Instruction.

DPI said comparisons are “unreliable,” though, because of the small number of students tested in the statewide voucher program.

Tuesday’s annual release of state test scores included scores from students in the statewide voucher program for the first time.

Students in the statewide voucher program do not include those in similar Milwaukee or Racine programs.

Of the 272 students enrolled in tested grades in the statewide program, 33.2 percent scored proficient and advanced in both reading and math. But that percentage doesn’t include 61 students — or 22.4 percent — that opted out of taking the state tests.

When those who opted out were included in the total and counted as not scoring proficient — as is the case for public school students who opt out — 25.7 percent scored proficient or advanced overall.

About 48.6 percent of all students enrolled in public schools scored proficient or advanced in math and 36.6 percent in reading, according to separate data DPI released Tuesday.

Just 578 of more than 432,000 public school students in tested grades didn’t take the test under the opt-out provision.

The percentage of public students ranked advanced and proficient were the same in reading and math with or without the students who opted out, according to DPI data.

State Superintendent Tony Evers said based on voucher student data among the three programs, “Clearly, student achievement needs to improve.”

In an email to colleagues, Nycole Stawinoga, a lobbyist for School Choice Wisconsin, said including opted-out students in test scores “renders the overall results inaccurate.”

The pro-voucher group said the scores of students in the statewide voucher program were higher than those of economically disadvantaged students in public schools when opted-out students aren’t included in the results.

DPI’s data show that 30.6 percent of economically disadvantaged students in public schools scored proficient or advanced in math and 21.3 percent in

reading.

DPI spokesman John Johnson said it’s not appropriate to compare students receiving vouchers to public school students considered to be economically disadvantaged because the income limits for both are “substantially different.”

To qualify for a reduced-price lunch in public school, a family of four cannot earn more than $43,568, which is 185 percent of the federal poverty level. But a family of four can make up to $50,752 to be eligible for the statewide voucher program, and up to $70,947 for the Milwaukee or Racine choice programs.

Most public school students, 94 percent, who are considered economically disadvantaged qualify for the free lunch program, which means they have a family-of-four income of $30,615 or below, Johnson said.

It’s unclear how many students in the voucher schools could qualify for free and reduced-price lunches because the schools aren’t required to report that figure, Johnson said.

Matt Kussow of the Wisconsin Council of Religious and Independent Schools said the most accurate achievement comparison would include test results from all students in a private school, not just those receiving vouchers.

“Unless it includes the test results of every student in the private school, it will not be a true reflection of their success nor a real comparison with the public and charter schools,” Kussow said.

The statewide voucher program has about 500 students, according to DPI. The program’s enrollment limit will rise to 1,000 next school year.

Racine and Milwaukee voucher students have been taking the same state tests as public school systems for the past three and four years, respectively.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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