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WIND POINT - Despite talk of repeatedly low state test scores, a feeling of hope was palpable Thursday during a presentation about education in the Racine Unified School District.

"This year I think we have some very, very, very good indicators of progress," said Robert Henken as he presented the findings of an analysis released Thursday that compares Racine Unified to nine similar districts across Wisconsin. The analysis has been completed for the last 13 years by Public Policy Forum Inc., a Milwaukee-based nonpartisan nonprofit government research entity of which Henken is president. "The fruits of your efforts are really beginning to pay off."

While Unified students remain academically behind those in the nine other districts, test scores locally are rising at a time when average state scores, though still higher than Unified scores, have started to slip downward. On 2009-10 state tests, Racine Unified third-grade reading, fifth-grade math and eighth-grade math and reading scores all improved while state average scores decreased slightly in those areas, Henken told a room full of about 100 educators and community members Thursday evening during his presentation, held at the Wingspread Conference Center, 33 E. 4 Mile Road.

"The Public Policy Forum is seeing some indications of progress for our students. That means a lot to me to have an outside entity confirm some of our suspicions and early indicators," said Racine Unified Superintendent Jim Shaw. "But we have a long way to go."

Despite the progress, the analysis shows Racine Unified students still performed worse than students in the nine other districts in 13 of 14 compared state testing categories.

"RUSD ranks last among the peer districts in reading and math in all grade levels except sixth, where the district's reading scores rank it eighth among its peers," the analysis reads. "RUSD has ranked at or near the bottom in reading and math across all grade levels throughout the 13-year history of this comparative analysis."

Teacher compensation

The analysis shows Racine Unified teachers, when compared to their colleagues in the nine peer districts, had the second highest compensation package but the lowest average experience in the 2008-09 school year, the most recent year for which data is available.

The average years experience of Racine teachers has dropped from about 19 in 2000 to about 12 in 2009, the analysis shows.

Shaw said 12 years average experience is not a concern to him and that teacher experience figures cannot be adequately evaluated without taking into account a district's teacher turnover and retirement history, items not included in the analysis.

Shaw also found flaws in the analysis's financial information. The analysis uses budgeted numbers in order to have the most current figures, according to Henken. Shaw said budgeted numbers are not reliable because they do not come from final audited financial reports and because some districts like Unified report post-employment benefits in budgets while others do not, an issue he said accounts for Unified appearing to have the second-highest teacher compensation package and the highest average teacher fringe benefits.

Henken acknowledged such discrepancies could be real but said he expected school district trends would remain the same whether using audited or budgeted numbers.

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