At Aquinas Catholic Schools last year, more than three-quarters of students who should have taken the Badger Exam didn’t.
State law has required students in the different Wisconsin choice programs to take the Wisconsin Student Assessment System exams since 2010, Department of Public Instruction officials state. But because there are no sanctions for schools where that does not happen, students at private schools across the state, including those at Aquinas, don’t take the tests.
Aquinas’ numbers follow state trends for the parental choice program, which provides up to $7,969 for a student to attend a private school participating in the program. Wisconsin choice students opted out of the WKCE exams at a rate of 35 percent and the Badger Exam at a rate of 60 percent. About 14 percent of choice students opted out of the ACT exams.
According to DPI data released this month, 22 Aquinas students utilizing the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program, or vouchers, should have taken the Badger Exam last year, which tested students on the Common Core State Standards in English and mathematics. Parents opted most of the students out of the exams, resulting in a participation rate of 23 percent.
Of those five, only two students tested at proficient or above in English and three students showed proficiency in math. Two of the 10 Aquinas students required to take the WKCE tests in social studies and science and one of the two Aquinas juniors required opted out of taking the ACT examination.
Aquinas leadership directed questions about the voucher program to Tom Reichenbacher, the Diocese of La Crosse superintendent of schools. There are seven school systems and 29 parish schools in the diocese, not all of which participate in the choice program, and Reichenbacher said choice parents opt their students out the state tests for a number of reasons.
Taking the state tests is an extra burden for students, who already take standardized tests such at the Iowa Basics examination as part of the Aquinas curriculum. Students also have to miss class time to take the state tests, he said, and many parents who feel students are tested enough opt their children out.
“I am an advocate of school choice,” Reichenbacher said. “I believe parents are the primary educators of our children and should be able to send their children to the schools that they want.”
Federal law requires public school districts to test 95 percent of students required to take state exams each year. Failure to do so could result in sanctions, including loss of funding. Both La Crosse and Onalaska, the districts Aquinas draws voucher students from, tested more than 97 percent of their students on the Badger Exam last year.
According to the DPI, Onalaska received about $5,100 per student from the state in 2013-2014 with La Crosse receiving $5,300 per student from the state. From all sources, including local property taxes and federal funding, Onalaska received nearly $12,000 per student in 2013 while La Crosse received more than $14,000 per student.
The state tests have been a hot topic among lawmakers and educators, especially as the choice program has grown to more than 2,500 students and $18 million during the past several years. More than 100 students at Aquinas use the program, about 11 percent of the student population at the Catholic school system.
Both Superintendent Fran Finco at the Onalaska school district and Superintendent Randy Nelson at the La Crosse school district have said they felt choice students need to be tested on the same criteria as public school students in order to compare how students in the voucher program are faring and hold it accountable.
“It is an important protection for taxpayers at the same time,” Nelson has said, adding that parents and the public should be able to make apples-to-apples comparisons of student performance.