- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 3, 2017

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Lawmakers questioned state education department officials Wednesday about whether a goal of cutting Wisconsin’s worst-in-the-nation student achievement gap between white and non-white students in half over the next six years was doable.

The goal is at the core of the state’s draft school accountability plan released last week that needs to be submitted to the federal government by Sept. 18. All states are required to submit plans under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. The briefing Wednesday before the Legislature’s education committees comes as the state education department is accepting public feedback through the end of June on its plan and the achievement gap goals.

“I struggle to understand if we can really meet that six-year goal,” said Democratic Rep. David Bowen, of Milwaukee. He asked how achievement gaps could be narrowed when some of the schools struggling the most don’t get as much funding as others and have a hard time offering competitive salaries to retain experienced teachers.

“Is it realistic for us to expect us to achieve that goal without addressing that gap?” Bowen asked.

Deputy state superintendent Jeff Pertl said cutting the achievement gap was more than just a goal.

“This is a moral imperative for everyone,” he said. Pertl said investments in mental health services, expansion of summer school and independent charter and choice schools can all lead to improved student performance.

“It is important to set high goals so we are working harder to reach them,” said Department of Public Instruction policy analyst Jennifer Kammerud.

Republican Sen. Luther Olsen, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, commended the department for setting the goals it did after years of what he called “floundering” on trying to cut the achievement gap.

Under the plan, the goal is to improve overall student performance by 1 percent each of the next six years. All students determined to be proficient would increase from 42.3 percent this year to 48.3 percent in the 2022 school year under the plan.

But the goals are higher for non-white students. For African Americans, the proficiency goal is a 4 percent increase each of the next six years - about four times what increases have been in recent years. African American student performance would increase under the goals from 13.8 percent this year to 37.7 percent in six years. Hispanic student performance would have to increase from 25.1 percent to 43.1 percent to meet the goals.

“It’s a very lofty goal,” said Republican Rep. Cindi Duchow.

“We can reach it,” Pertl promised.

Republican Rep. Shannon Zimmerman said he said “lofty goals are exactly where we need to be. Let’s aim for the stars and see where we come down.”

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Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sbauerAP and find more of his work at https://bigstory.ap.org/content/scott-bauer .

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