Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) _ Wisconsin had the worst achievement gap between black and white students among states last year, and officials shouldered the blame Wednesday while putting the onus on teachers to address the issue.

Teachers and principals from schools that have closed the gap will lead a new Promoting Excellence for All Task Force, which was described as a grassroots campaign to end disparities among racial groups and economic classes.

In Wisconsin, American Indian, Asian, black and Hispanic students have posted scores lower than white students in reading and math over the past five years. The gap in performance on math tests widened again this year among some of those groups. Poor students also generally have scored lower.

Education officials said fixing the problem will be tough.

“It’s going to take some heavy lifting on 60,000 teachers in schools across Wisconsin to make this happen,” State Superintendent Tony Evers said.

Just 18.3 percent of the state’s black students scored proficient or advanced on state math exams, according to data released Tuesday. Contrast that with 48.6 percent overall and 56.2 percent among whites.

The new task force is made up mostly of teachers and principals, which Evers and others said is a unique approach.

“I think getting down to that classroom level is something that has not been done before,” said Anna Koelln, the Wisconsin consultant with the Midwest Comprehensive Center, a federally funded group that assists school districts with research.

Other Midwestern states, such as Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa, have taken a different approach, raising teacher compensation, giving grants to struggling districts and creating centers that address achievement issues specific to their regions.

The task force includes teachers and principals from public and choice schools. Seven of the 17 members are from Milwaukee.

The recently released test results showed that students in choice schools in Milwaukee and Racine lag those in the cities’ public schools when it comes to achievement. They also scored below the state average.

“The only way you can develop a tool kit is by allowing people who are making it work in schools right now to have a voice in what that tool kit looks like in the state of Wisconsin,” said Demond Means, chair of the task force and superintendent of Mequon-Thiensville School District.

Education was one of the most talked about issues during the past legislative session, which ended April 1 with little done in the way of school reform.

Evers said he expects the new group to stay out of state politics. He also wants members to look for solutions that don’t require extra spending because state aid has been cut in the past.

“We want them to focus on the things in their classrooms that they (can) control,” Evers said.

The task force will meet twice in May in Milwaukee and Green Bay and once in Madison in June before writing its report.