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Historical Assessments

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History of Assessment in Wisconsin

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) has a long history of administering standardized assessments for the purpose of measuring student achievement.


PreACT Secure Online administered to grade 9 and 10 in Wisconsin for the first time. 


DPI administered the new Forward Exam Social Studies test which was aligned to the new Wisconsin Social Studies Standards adopted by the State Superintendent in May of 2018. During the spring of 2022 DPI established new performance levels (cut scores) for the Forward Exam Social Studies content area. A standard setting was held with Wisconsin Educators to provide DPI with recommended cut scores.

2021-22 was the last year the ACT Aspire was administered at grades 9 and 10 in Wisconsin.


The planned release of the new Forward Social Studies Exam was postponed until the 2021-22 administration.


ACCESS for ELLs and the first ACT test window were administered as scheduled. On March 13, 2020, the Governor issued an order to close Wisconsin Public Schools as of March 18, in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19. On March 20, DPI applied for a waiver from federal requirements in ESEA to administer statewide assessments to all students, to make annual accountability determinations, to identify schools for support and improvement, and to provide data on federal report cards for assessment and accountability information. The ESEA waiver, granted by the U.S. Department of Education on March 23, as well as Wisconsin Act 185 enacted on April 15 resulted in the suspension of all federal and state requirements to administer academic assessments for 2019-20.


The 2018-19 was the last year Wisconsin required the administration of the ACT WorkKeys assessment.

New Wisconsin Social Studies Standards were adopted in May of 2018. The development of a new Forward Social Studies exam began with a plan to test the new standards for the first time during the 2020-21 administration allowing educators and students to become familiar with the new learning expectations.

With the adoption of the new Wisconsin Science Standards (WSS) in November of 2017, DPI launched the new Forward Exam Science test for the 2018-19 administration. The test focuses on content understanding linked to work with science and engineering practices and crosscutting concepts. The new Forward Exam Science test includes sets of questions, based on a multi-paragraph stimulus. The stimulus is not meant to provide the answers to the following items, but to even the playing field for students not familiar with a particular context. Students have three to five questions related to each stimulus. The Science test went from two sessions in previous years to three sessions to make the test more accessible for students and to provide ease of school scheduling.

During the spring of the 2019 school year, DPI established new performance levels (cut scores) for the Forward Exam Science content areas. A standard setting was held with Wisconsin Educators to provide DPI with recommended cut scores.

Also in 2019, a third-party independent alignment study of the new Forward Science Exam to the new Wisconsin Science Standards was completed. The study involved both Wisconsin educators and National experts.


WIDA undertook a standard setting in the summer of 2016, which reset the cut scores on ACCESS for ELLs. The new cut scores better aligned the language expectations of ACCESS to our college- and career-readiness standards.

Each aspect of Wisconsin’s statewide testing system includes significant involvement of Wisconsin educators and stakeholders. Wisconsin educators play an integral role in the development of the academic content standards, achievement standards, and assessments. Educators with diverse geographic, demographic, racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds across the state participate in test-development activities. Special education and English learner representation is also ensured at all stages of the Wisconsin Student Assessment System.

In 2017, a third-party independent alignment study of the Forward Exam English Language Arts, Mathematics, and Science exams to the Wisconsin Academic Standards was completed. The study involved both Wisconsin educators and national experts.


The Badger Exam was discontinued after one year of administration. The Wisconsin Forward Exam was developed by Data Recognition Corporation (DRC) and first administered online in 2015-16 to students in grades 3-8 in English Language Arts and Mathematics, grades 4 and 8 in Science, and grades 4, 8, and 10 in Social Studies. The Forward Exam replaced both the Badger Exam and the WKCE.

In 2015-16 Wisconsin began to administer the DLM to students in grades 3-11 for ELA and Mathematics, as well as students in grades 4 and 8-11 for Science.

ACCESS for ELLs 2.0 is administered for the first time. The ASSETS grant work was completed, and the ASSETS consortium was merged into the WIDA consortium.

2015 Wisconsin Act 55 modified the literacy screener requirement so that districts are allowed to choose their own literacy screener for students in grades 4K through 2 beginning with the 2016-17 school year.


The administration schedule of the WKCE evolved over the years. It started with a fall testing window between 1992 and 1997. The WKCE then switched to February administration between 1999 and 2002. Finally the WKCE went back to a fall (November) administration from 2002 until the last administration in 2014-15. In the 2014-15, the WKCE was reduced to only Science and Social Studies. DPI continued to work with CTB/McGraw-Hill to produce the paper/pencil assessment.

2014-15 was also the first year of the new Badger Exam 3-8, Wisconsin’s Smarter Balanced Assessment. The Badger Exam was an online summative assessment administered in English Language Arts (ELA) and Mathematics for grades 3-8. The exam used multiple item types including selected response, constructed response, and technology enhanced items.

DPI also administered new high school assessments in 2014-15 in compliance with the 2011 Assembly Bill 40 Act 20 and the 2013-15 biennial state budget. The Wisconsin High School Assessments are comprised of the ACT Aspire™ Early High School assessment for English, Reading, Mathematics, Science, and Writing in grades 9 and 10, The ACT® Plus Writing for Reading, Mathematics, English, Science, Writing in grade 11, and The ACT® WorkKeys® for Applied Mathematics, Locating Information, and Reading for Information in grade 11.

The first administration of the DLM online assessment was in 2014-15 to students in grades 3-11 in ELA and Mathematics. The DLM assessment is aligned to the Wisconsin Essential Elements and based on the Wisconsin Academic Standards.

For the 2014-15 school year, the requirement to administer PALS was expanded to also include second grade students.


In 2013-14, Wis. Stats., S.118.016, required the expanded administration of PALS to all 4-year-old kindergarten to first grade students enrolled in public school districts and charter schools.

2013 Wisconsin Act 20 expanded the requirement to include 4K and first grade students for the 2013-14 school year and second grade students for the 2014-15 school year.


In the 2012-13 school year, DPI established new performance levels (cut scores) for the WKCE Reading and Mathematics content areas to more closely align with national and international expectations of requirements to be college and career ready. The higher cut scores were comparable to National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) cut scores. The performance level descriptors that accompanied the college- and career- ready cut scores had been revised to reflect the higher expectations required with the higher performance benchmarks. The new WKCE cut scores and performance-level descriptors served as a bridge to the more rigorous assessments which were to be introduced in the 2014-15 school year.

Also, in 2012-13, Wisconsin Statutes required that the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (PALS) become the screener for Wisconsin 5-year-old kindergarten students. PALS is a research based screening, diagnostic, and progress monitoring tool.


DPI becomes the fiscal agent for the ASSETS Enhanced Assessment Grant, which helped WIDA create ACCESS for ELLs 2.0. The ASSETS consortium was formed, and consisted of 36 states and territories to help guide this work. ACCESS for ELLs 2.0 was designed to be an online, semi-adaptive test, a change from the previous paper assessment.

The 2011 Wisconsin Act 166 required an early literacy screener to be administered to all kindergarten students (5K) beginning with the 2012-13 school year with the department being authorized to select the screener.


On June 2, 2010, Wisconsin formally adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for Mathematics and English Language Arts, including the Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and the Technical Subjects for Wisconsin. 2010 also marked the year Wisconsin elected to join the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), one of the two national consortia awarded funding from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) to establish a series of “next generation assessments” to measure students’ career and college readiness with an assessment system aligned to the CCSS by 2014-15.

The Wisconsin joined the Dynamic Learning Maps (DLM) Alternate Assessment System Consortium in 2010. The consortium was composed of multiple state departments of education along with a team of test developers, researchers, and educators. The DLM™ assessment was designed to measure the academic progress of students with significant cognitive disabilities.


The new WAA-SwD was first administered in 2007-08 to students with significant cognitive disabilities in grades 3-8, and 10, who could not participate in the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination (WKCE) even with accommodations. Students were administered a performance-based assessment for Reading, Mathematics, and Science in a one-to-one setting. Social Studies continued to be an educator rating of student performance but no longer required the submission of evidence.


The 2005-06 academic year brought significant changes to the state-assessment program. This was the first year of annual testing in grades 3-8 and once in high school (grade 10, per Wisconsin law) in Reading and Mathematics as required by NCLB. Wisconsin also continued to test Science, Language Arts, and Social Studies in grades 4, 8, and10.

In preparation for annual testing in grades 3-8 and 10, Wisconsin developed Assessment Frameworks in Reading and Mathematics to extend the expectations for student knowledge specified in the WMAS (what students are expected to know at the ends of grades 4, 8, and 12) to the WKCE tests that were administered at the beginning of grades 3-8 and 10. The frameworks were released in 2005.

DPI also developed completely-customized item banks for Reading and Mathematics which were used for the first time in 2005-06. Science remained a mostly TerraNova-based test at grades 4 and 8, with a few Wisconsin-customized items added to ensure full coverage of the WMAS, while the Language-Arts and Social-Studies tests at grades 4 and 8 remained TerraNova-based.

As a result of the move to completely Wisconsin-customized items in Reading and Mathematics, a customized Wisconsin scale replaced the TerraNova scale for all subjects beginning in 2005-06. The cut scores for the new scale were equated from the TerraNova scale using a procedure known as equipercentile equating. With the transition to a new test and a new scale, which involved few, if any TerraNova items administered to students nationwide in Reading, Mathematics, and Science, the WKCE results became reported primarily on a criterion-referenced basis, (student performance reported in relation to grade-level expectations) rather than on a norm-referenced basis, (student results reported largely in relation to other students’ performances through the use of percentiles). In 2006, an Alignment Analysis of Reading Standards and Assessment and an Alignment Analysis of Mathematics Standards and Assessment was done.

In 2005-06, evidence collection tools were developed and were mandated to be used for the 2006 assessment. During this time, the State of Wisconsin was also working towards new alternate achievement standards called the Extended Grade Band Standards. These new standards were used as the basis for the new performance based assessment called the Wisconsin Alternate Assessment for Students with Disabilities (WAA-SwD).

ACCESS for ELLs was administered operationally in WI for the first time. As the WIDA consortium was growing, the headquarters for WIDA was relocated from DPI to the University of Wisconsin – Madison.


The WIDA consortium field tests ACCESS for ELLs assessment in eight states.


Achievement standards for the WKCE, which included cut scores for all four categories of proficiency, and performance descriptors specifying what type of knowledge and skills characterized each proficiency category, were reset for all subjects and grade levels in February 2003. This was the first academic year following the adoption of the federal reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the No Child Left Behind act (NCLB). The standard-setting process involved nearly 250 Wisconsin educators, business leaders, and citizens.

DPI receives an Enhanced Assessment Grant to create Wisconsin’s first English Language Proficiency assessment. The WIDA consortium is formed to carry out this work.


Additional Wisconsin-customized items were added in grades 4 and 8 in 2001, following a second alignment study between the WMAS and the augmented WKCE. The Grade 10 WKCE did not require augmentation with Wisconsin-customized items following the 2001 alignment study because it began utilizing items from the High School Graduation Test (HSGT) item pool. The HSGT was developed, and its items were field tested, but it was never administered as an operational test following a repeal of the program by the Wisconsin legislature. Since 2001, the Grade 10 WKCE has utilized completely Wisconsin-customized items in all five tested subjects (Reading, Mathematics, Language Arts, Science, and Social Studies) using selected items from the HSGT item pool.

For the 2001-02 testing cycle, the WKCE norms were changed from 1996 to 2000. This assured meaningful comparisons with national performances.

The approach to alternate assessment was discontinued due to concerns with having students involved in primarily individualized assessments that were neither standards-focused nor easily included for determining adequate yearly progress (AYP). The alternate assessment for students with significant cognitive disabilities in Wisconsin changed in 2001-02 to a teacher rater format that was based on teachers’ ratings of students’ work and classroom performance record for the current school year. The evidence teachers collected and rated illustrated knowledge and skills that were relevant to the item it was intended to support.


The year 1998 was also marked by the development and approval of formal academic content standards in Wisconsin, which came to be known as the Wisconsin Model Academic Standards (WMAS). These content standards established expectations for what students should know by the end of grades 4, 8, and 12 in the core academic areas of English Language Arts, Mathematics, Science, and Social Studies. Content standards for other subject areas were approved in subsequent years. The adoption of the WMAS brought a series of significant changes to Wisconsin’s assessment program, beginning with the addition of Wisconsin-customized items to the TerraNova-based WKCE assessments in Reading, Mathematics, and Science at grades 4, 8, and 10 following an alignment study of Grade 4, Grade 8, and Grade 10 between the TerraNova tests and the WMAS. This was also the first year the WKCE was required at grades 4, 8, and 10 for Reading, Mathematics, Science, Language Arts, and Social Studies.

Beginning in 1998-99, alternate assessment in Wisconsin involved a review of student performance similar to what might typically be part of a reevaluation procedure or an individualized education program (IEP) process. According to the initial DPI policy, the alternate assessment could consist of any of the following elements: school records; the most recent evaluation data; formal and informal assessments conducted by team members; reports by parents, general education teachers, and special education teachers; classroom work samples; and other information available to the IEP team.


In 1997-98, the WKCE utilized the TerraNova exam series, developed by CTB/McGraw-Hill, following a request for proposals (RFP) and a review of qualified bids. WKCE results were reported in terms of four proficiency categories: minimal performance, basic, proficient, and advanced. The proficiency categories were based on cut scores from the established TerraNova scale that was set by using a standard-setting process involving over 200 Wisconsin educators, business leaders, and citizens who represented the state and were knowledgeable about the content areas and grade levels being assessed.


From 1988-92, The Wisconsin Achievement Tests were established. These tests, known as the standard “s” tests (named after s.121.02 (1)(s) Wis. Stats.), were similar to the CBT in that districts were required to test students in Reading, Language Arts, and Mathematics using curriculum-based tests. Although the standard “s” tests differed from the CBT in the frequency of testing required, districts that participated fully in the CBT program automatically met the standard “s” requirement. Standard “s” results were used to determine if curriculum goals were being met as well as to monitor student achievement.

Beginning in the spring of 1989, DPI administered the Wisconsin Reading Comprehension Test (WRCT), which was designed to identify students needing remedial Reading instruction. The WRCT was administered annually in the spring through 2005, when it was replaced by the Grade 3 Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam (WKCE) Reading Test as described below.

In 1991, Act 269 of the Wisconsin Legislature repealed both the CBT program and the standard "s" testing requirement. These programs were replaced by a requirement that school districts administer knowledge-and-concepts examinations in the grades 8 and 10 beginning in 1993-94, and in grade 4 beginning in 1996-97. These assessments were designed to measure student knowledge and skills in Reading, Language Arts, Mathematics, Science, Social Studies, and Writing. The earliest versions of the WKCE were commercial shelf tests that included ACT’s EXPLORE and PLAN assessments as well as the SAT-8 series developed by The Psychological Corporation of San Antonio, Texas (now known as Harcourt Assessment).


From 1984-92, the Competency-Based Testing Program (CBT) was administered. The CBT was an objective-referenced, curriculum-based examination at grades 3 through 12 which determined minimal standards for student achievement in Reading, Language Arts, and Mathematics. Participation in the CBT by school districts was voluntary. Districts could also develop their own examinations, with DPI approval, or use test questions developed from a DPI Item Bank. Participating districts were required to test all pupils once each in grades K-5, 6-8, and 9-12.


From 1975-87, the Wisconsin Pupil Assessment Program was administered in order to measure student achievement in specific skill areas using examinations with objective-and-norm-referenced interpretations. These exams were administered in March to samples of students from randomly-selected schools based on geographic location, district size, and grade enrollment. Pupil Assessments were developed by Wisconsin teachers for use in grades 4, 5, 8, 11, and 12 in Reading, Mathematics (Arithmetic, Geometry, and Number Sentences), Writing, Science, and Social Studies (Economic Understanding, U.S. Government, and Geography).

During this time, the Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills (CTBS), a commercial shelf-test published by CTB/McGraw-Hill, was also administered to a statewide representative sample at grades 4, 8, and 11. Districts were allowed to purchase additional copies of the Pupil Assessment if they wished so that all of their students, rather than just those in the selected statewide sample, could be tested.

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