Private school voucher students did score higher than public school students who receive free or reduced-priced lunches, a comparison used by the program's supporters but questioned by the state Department of Public Instruction as not being fair given differing income eligibility cut-offs.
The test results released by DPI will only fuel the debate over whether the voucher program should be allowed to grow. This year the program expanded statewide after previously being allowed only in Milwaukee and Racine, but enrollment is capped at 500 students outside of those two cities. That increases to 1,000 students next year.
The numbers show that Milwaukee and Racine voucher students fared worse overall than public school students in both of those districts individually and when compared with all public school students statewide.
Nearly 49 percent of all public school students were proficient or advanced in reading on the tests administered in the fall. But only about 16 percent were in the highest two categories in the Milwaukee voucher program, 21 percent in Racine and 33 percent in schools in the statewide program.
In reading, nearly 37 percent of public students had the highest two rankings. That compares with about 12 percent in the Milwaukee voucher program, 19 percent in Racine and 33 percent in the other schools.
Jim Bender, president of School Choice Wisconsin, emphasized the numbers showing better performance for students who are in the voucher schools versus low-income students in public schools.
But opponents of the voucher program said it's not valid to compare the performances of Milwaukee and Racine choice students and low-income public school students.
"The reason the voucher program students did better is not because of what was happening the voucher school but because who the voucher school student is now," said Democratic state Rep. Sondy Pope.
To qualify for a reduced-price lunch, a family of four cannot earn more than $43,752, which is 185 percent of the federal poverty level. But a family of four can earn up to $70,947 and still get into the Milwaukee or Racine choice programs.
Nearly all public school students in the lunch program, 94 percent, have a family of four income below $30,615, said DPI spokesman John Johnson. That is 40 percent less than the income limit to get into the state voucher program and 60 percent less than what can be earned to get into the Milwaukee or Racine programs.
"These are not apples to apples comparisons," Johnson said.
In the Milwaukee voucher program, nearly 16 percent were in the top two rankings for math. That is lower than the district's 19 percent, but better than the 15.3 percent for Milwaukee public students in poverty.
In Racine, just over 21 percent of choice students scored in the highest two categories for math. That compares with 28 percent for the public school district and just over 19 percent for those in poverty in the public school.
The results were similar for reading scores.
This marks the fourth year Milwaukee choice students have taken the same statewide test as public school students. It's the third year for those in Racine. It's the first year for schools in the statewide program, but only 272 students were in testable grades, making comparisons unreliable DPI said.
Data for all public schools also released Tuesday also showed a continued wide disparity between test scores for white students and minorities.
"Clearly, student achievement needs to improve," state Superintendent Tony Evers said in a statement.
Walker signed a bill Tuesday that requires all schools that take public money - including private schools in the voucher program - to submit starting with the 2015 school year a variety of demographic information, in addition to these test results, for inclusion on report cards for the public to see.
The Legislature had debated a more expansive proposal, which would have imposed sanctions on poor-performing public and choice schools, but could not reach agreement.