Nearly two-thirds of Wisconsin students who took the state reading test last fall scored below proficient, and less than half were proficient in math, according to recalibrated results released Tuesday by the Department of Public Instruction.
In previous reporting of the same results, about 80 percent of students scored proficient on the reading and math tests.
The difference is a change in the yardstick used to measure "proficiency" — what students in a certain grade level should know and be able to do — rather than a change in how students performed on the tests.
Still, the new results should be a "smack in the face" for Wisconsin, said Adam Gamoran, director of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at UW-Madison.
"It's going to be a wake-up call," Gamoran said. "It's a more honest reckoning of where Wisconsin students stand relative to other students across the nation and relative to the goals we want for all of our students."
The old results were based on whether students were meeting Wisconsin's definition of being at grade-level, whereas the new results reflect more rigorous standards of what it means to be prepared for college or a career used for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the nation's report card.
About 3,000 4th and 8th graders in Wisconsin take the NAEP every other year. In 2011, 32 percent of Wisconsin 4th graders scored proficient on NAEP's reading test and 39 percent scored proficient on the math test.
The data released Tuesday marks the first time DPI has converted results of the state test, which more than 430,000 students in grades 3-8 and 10 take in the fall, to the NAEP benchmarks.
DPI won't release recalculated results for individual schools and districts until the fall, when it also plans to release individual school report cards with ratings on a scale of 0 to 100.
Kim Henderson, president of the Wisconsin Parent Teacher Association, said parents pay closer attention to state test scores than NAEP scores, so the results could "bring up a lot of good questioning."
Rep. Steve Kestell, R-Elkhart Lake, chairman of the Assembly Education Committee, called the new results "one of the shockers that we've been anticipating" as the state transitions to a new test over the next two years. He said the lower proficiency rates align with reports from businesses and universities that students aren't being adequately prepared.
"As many people know, Wisconsin's proficiency standards have been pictured through rose-colored glasses for some time," Kestell said.
Christina Brey, a spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Education Association Council, said the idea that students can perform at even higher levels is a good one.
"It's important to keep in mind our students in Wisconsin are continuing to perform as well as ever," Brey said.
State performance on NAEP remains better than the national average, though a joint study from Harvard University and the conservative Hoover Institution released Monday reported Wisconsin had the fourth-lowest rate of improvement among 41 states studied between 1992 and 2011. The study found Wisconsin's rank had fallen from sixth to 14th during that time.
DPI released the new test results as part of a package of information related to the state's new accountability system.
The release includes a model report card and a breakdown of how school ratings will be calculated based on student achievement, student growth, closing achievement gaps and whether students are prepared to graduate, as well as test participation, absentee and dropout rates.
The accountability system was developed over the last year and was required to free the state from federal requirements under the No Child Left Behind law.
Under NCLB, all students needed to be proficient on the state test by 2014. Under a waiver from NCLB approved earlier this month, the goal is for 50 percent of students to score proficient on the new state reading test and 65 percent to score proficient on the new state math test by 2017.
New K-12 state test results
Percent of Wisconsin students scoring proficient or better on state tests last fall under new benchmarks tied to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Source: Department of Public Instruction