Is It Fair to Question Wisconsin Tests? A Quick Look

By Bill Henk – Looks like this week I could become guilty of what I’ve accused others of doing — criticizing things about education they don’t really know about.  In this case, I’ll touch briefly on two tests — one that has been used with Wisconsin school children for quite a while and another for future teachers that will almost certainly be with us in the near future.

So as not to keep you in suspense, I’ll tell you that the first is the infamous WKCE or Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examinations (given in grades 3 through 8 and grade 10).  The second is the Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure (MTEL)’s Foundations of Reading Test.

Both tests are on my mind because of an interesting information session I attended last week at the Greater Milwaukee Foundation.  The program centered on Governor Walker’s Educational Reform legislation, and Michael Brickman, Education Policy Research Assistant for the administration, and my Marquette colleague, Alan Borsuk, both spoke admirably at the event.   

What’s Up With The WKCEs?

To make a long story short, each of the speakers talked about the WKCEs and the widely held belief that these tests should be replaced.  And in fact, the tests are indeed targeted for extinction, although the date for implementation has been pushed back several times in recent years.

Of particular note, Alan presented data showing stark differences between the cut scores on the WKCE and the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) tests for fourth and eighth grade reading and math.  Basically, the WKCE cut scores enabled significantly larger percentages of Wisconsin students to fall into the proficient and advanced achievement categories than NAEP did.

Anyway, to my credit, at no point have I ever argued that the WKCEs shouldeither be replaced or retained, and it’s a good thing.  Why?  Because I’ve never so much as laid eyes on them myself!  So when the two speakers concluded their remarks, I found myself questioining the fairness of the negative perceptions of the WKCEs on two counts:

  1. Do the tests themselves qualify as inherently faulty or are the cut scores simply set too low?
  2. Are the numerous critics of the assessments, some very vocal, genuinely informed or is the common disdain for the WKCEs an artifact of popular wisdom?

And by the way, it may be that the tests are both lousy and set low standards.  I just wonder how many of its detractors truly know.

Admittedly, these are somewhat moot points, because the tests are going away no matter what.  But in the meantime, it would be nice to hear more about the integrity of the WKCEs — from any of our readers who have seen or used the tests and can comment knowledgeably on them.  Please weigh in if you can shed light.

For the record, my personal interest is officially piqued, and it’s long overdue.  I’d love to get a look at the WKCEs.   Given what I know from having studied and taught  test development and from serving as a chief consultant when Pennsylvania completely overhauled its statewide reading assessments in the 1990’s, I’ll bet I could provide a thoughtful analysis.  Frankly, it would be interesting to evaluate the formatting, the nature of the tasks, the quality of the items, and other key elements of test construction, so I could make an educated judgment.

To sum up and looking forward, the WKCEs will give way to new assessments by  2014 we’re told.  Fact is, test development takes a lot of time, so we can only wait and see.  Regardless of when the instruments go live, I expect that the two biggest differences will the incorporation of the more rigorous Common Core Standards and a notably higher setting of the bar.

Foundations of Reading

One of three components of the Educational Reform legislation is entitled “Read to Lead.”  Among other expectations, Read to Lead will require that all aspiring elementary school teachers take a version of the MTEL Foundations of Reading Test by the year 2013-14.  There is talk that such an assessment will either replace the current Praxis II exams for these Education majors or that the current exam will be expanded to include many more literacy-related questions.   Decisions of this kind remain up in the air.

I’m going to refrain from questioning this new assessment until I’ve had time to review it thoroughly.  Although I’m not generally convinced that another multiple-choice, paper and pencil test will solve much, I’m willing to give Wisconsin’s eventual version of the Foundations of Reading test the benefit of the doubt.  Whether it can impact K-12 students’ literacy attainment by holding future teachers accountable for a particular knowledge base remains to be seen.  However, in Massachusetts, where the test was first implemented, significant gains in reading have been reported for its school children statewide.

What I will say is that I’m hoping it’s not politicized, and by that I mean the assessment unfairly and inappropriate favors one way of teaching reading over others.  And believe me, with the contentious way that reading methodology is contested, it’s a distinct possibility.  It no surprise that the debate is referred to as “The Reading Wars.”   For now I’ll just say that while one method might be generally preferable on balance, it’s important that we never lose sight of the fact that children learn in different ways.  Each child deserves the specialized reading instruction that offers the best chances for success.

And I’ll also say that I prefer assessments of teaching that require actual application.  For this reason, I’m partial to the Teacher Performance Assessment that teachers trained in Wisconsin will have to take prior to licensure.

In any case, I plan to find out more and you can, too.  Just the other day, I came across practice tests for the MTEL Foundations of Reading assessment including an even more elaborate version that explained the correct answers.  I plan to check these samples out as soon as I can, and invite you to do so, too.  Just click on the links directly above.

On the face of it, I’ve got to admit that the questions look interesting.  But for the time being, in my case it’s a matter of too many questions, too little time.

3 Responses to “Is It Fair to Question Wisconsin Tests? A Quick Look”

  1. 1 Colleen March 8, 2012 at 6:31 pm

    Dean Henk,

    Thank you for sharing this information. As for getting your hands on a test booklet, you can view released items of the WKCE by googling “WKCE released items” or “WKCE sample”. I think it’s through the DPI website. There should be samples of both Reading and Math for all grades tested (3-10). Enjoy!


    • 2 billhenk March 10, 2012 at 12:40 pm

      I’ll check those sources out soon, Colleen. Thank you. Sad to say, I’ve long suspected that WKCE information including sample items were out there somewhere, but I’ve never sought it out, and I should have.



  1. 1 Let’s Get Back to the Point! English Ed. Graduate Workshop – Day 1 | Krista Moroder Trackback on January 1, 2015 at 11:40 pm

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