The percentage of Madison School District students reading proficiently in the early grades rose last year across all student groups and particularly among black and Hispanic second-graders, trends the district touted Monday in releasing its annual report.

Graduation rates and middle school math scores also showed improvement, while the district’s stark racial achievement gaps are narrowing in some places and widening in others. In some cases, the gap is widening because progress by white students is outpacing progress by black and Hispanic students, though all are improving.

“We’ve built positive momentum,” Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham said at a press conference Monday. “Our work is gap-narrowing. We’re starting to see evidence of more than just improvement across groups, but acceleration, which is key.”

This is the third annual report since Cheatham took over in 2013 and introduced a district improvement strategy.

The press conference was held at La Follette High School, where the graduation rate for black students has gone from 65.8 percent to 80 percent in two years. Principal Sean Storch said the school tries to connect individually with every freshman, then closely tracks each student’s progress and steps in with more support when needed.

Overall, the district said its graduation rate is 80.4 percent, up 2 percentage points in two years.

The annual report is a selective rather than exhaustive view of the district, with only some grades and some demographic groups highlighted in detail.

The report cited proficiency rates in reading at grade three and reading and math in grades five and eight, as measured by the Measures of Academic Progress exam, which tests students throughout the school year. Overall, fewer than half of students in any of those grades and subjects were considered proficient, though progress is being made.

Third-graders showed a 5 percentage point increase in reading proficiency over three years, to 41 percent. Fifth-grade reading proficiency is up 10 percentage points over the same time period, to 44 percent.

“We are taking our challenges head on, and we are seeing strong progress,” School Board Vice President Mary Burke said at the press conference, which was attended by dozens of community leaders, students, staff members and parents.

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Middle school math proficiency, calculated by bringing together scores in grades six to eight, is up 4 percentage points over three years, to 45 percent. The math scores illustrate how racial achievement gaps can widen even when everyone is improving.

During the 2012-13 school year, 19 percent of Hispanic middle school students scored proficient in math compared to 61 percent of white middle school students, a gap of 42 percentage points. Last year, proficiency among Hispanic students improved to 24 percent, yet the proficiency of white students improved to 68 percent, widening the gap to 44 percentage points.

Gaps are narrowing, however, in second-grade reading. Two years ago, 52 percent of black students were proficient compared to 80 percent of whites, a gap of 28 percentage points. The gap has shrunk to 22 percentage points because black students improved to 64 percent and white students to 86 percent.

Overall, 78 percent of second-graders are hitting the district’s literacy benchmark, up six percentage points over the prior year.

“The district’s focus on early literacy is paying off, with increases across all student groups and accelerated growth for those who need it the most,” the report says.

The racial gaps in graduation rates are still pronounced but narrowing. The black graduation rate is now 58.7 percent — up 5 percentage points in two years — and the white rate is 91.4 percent. The gap has decreased about 1.5 percentage points during that time.

Cheatham announced Monday that the district’s workforce is “getting stronger and more diverse.” She said 55 of the new teacher hires for the coming school year are educators of color, more than doubling the number that had been hired at this time in the process last year.

About 220 new teachers have been hired so far for the 2016-17 school year, representing about 83 percent of the vacancies, said Deirdre Hargrove-Krieghoff, the district’s executive director of human resources.

Ari Davis, 18, a 2016 graduate of West High School, spoke at the press conference and praised the district for helping to inspire in him a love of learning. He said he’s concerned about the disproportionate percentage of black male students who drop out of high school in Wisconsin, and hopes to be part of the solution by becoming a teacher or principal.

“I want to help change that,” said Davis, who plans to attend Carthage College in Kenosha this fall and major in education. “And what better way to do that then by leading a school and giving young African-American males like myself and others a positive figure to look up to, like I have from men like my father.”

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