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State superintendent appoints critical leadership positions
DPI focuses on growth-based mindset in updated student performance level descriptors for standardized assessments
wisconsin department of instruction dpi

MADISON — State Superintendent Dr. Jill Underly on June 6 announced she made appointments to critical leadership positions within the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

Following a formal interview process, Dr. Underly appointed Dr. Barb Novak as the director of the DPI’s Office of Literacy (also known as the Wisconsin Reading Center), and current Frederic School District Superintendent Josh Robinson as the assistant state superintendent for the Division of Academic Excellence.

“Both Dr. Novak and Superintendent Robinson bring decades of experience in education and will help the department achieve our goal of meeting the needs of all Wisconsin students and educators,” Dr. Underly said. “I am excited to welcome them to the DPI, and I know their expertise and unique perspectives will help guide them as leaders in each of their respective roles.”

Dr. Novak has more than 20 years of experience supporting reading and literacy development in Wisconsin, including as a reading teacher, a literacy coach, and more than a decade working at the DPI focused on literacy. She is a believer in building systems to support student learning, maintaining asset-based approaches to each student, and developing educator expertise. Dr. Novak will lead the DPI’s work on implementing the requirements of 2023 Wisconsin Act 20, which reimagines the way Wisconsin students are taught to read. She was appointed to the role after a rigorous application and interview process, and in consultation with the Early Literacy Curriculum Council. Dr. Novak will start in the role on June 17.

“I am honored and humbled by the opportunity to lead the Office of Literacy and to help our school districts improve reading instruction across the state,” Dr. Novak said. “Ensuring every child can read by the end of third grade is, undoubtedly, one of a school’s most critical responsibilities. But this cannot happen at the expense of other important aspects of early childhood development, including social development, mental health, or other learning. Opportunities to improve, as Act 20 provides, must happen as part of an education that addresses the unique needs of Wisconsin’s youngest learners.”

Robinson comes to the DPI with 25 years of experience in public education — first as a teacher, then as a principal, and finally as the superintendent of the Frederic School District, where he has served his community for the past 12 years. He is an advocate for advancing educational practices, is dedicated to student success, and has a track record of fostering collaborative engagement and meaningful relationships within educational communities. In addition to having experiences with strategic planning, stakeholder engagement, and policy implementation, Robinson has been an instructor for the University of Wisconsin-River Falls’ principal licensure program and sits on the Northwood Technical College Board. He will begin in the role on July 1.

“I am eager to join the DPI as an assistant state superintendent, and I look forward to bringing my passion for public education to the state level,” Robinson said. “I am a firm believer in helping individuals maximize their potential — that is accomplished by truly understanding the unique needs of each learner and working together to support their success.”

In addition to these appointments, Dr. John Johnson, who has served as the DPI’s deputy state superintendent for the past three years and has long worked in several leadership roles at the agency, will move to a senior policy advisor role in Dr. Underly’s cabinet. Associate Deputy State Superintendent Thomas McCarthy will officially move into the role of deputy state superintendent on July 1.

Overwhelming feedback in survey guides first update to terminology in nearly 10 years 

MADISON — Following months of extensive engagement with internal and external education partners, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction is updating terminology used to describe performance levels on required statewide standardized assessments. The updated terms are intended to foster conversations promoting student potential and growth at every level.

“During my time as superintendent and dating back to when I was a district administrator, I’ve often heard confusion from parents, families, and legislators on what performance terms on tests meant in regard to where students are at academically,” Dr. Underly said. “We really wanted to hear from our experts, our educators, on how they talk about student performance on tests and try to use the language they use. This updated terminology is not only clearer, it also recognizes the endless potential each of our students has as learners.”

The terms developing, approaching, meeting, and advanced will replace the previous terms that have been used since 2014-15 — below basic, basic, proficient, and advanced. These updated terms will be used moving forward (beginning with assessments from the 2023-24 school year) on student reports for the Forward Exam, in addition to school, district, and state secure and public reports for the Forward Exam, ACT, and PreACT Secure.

The updated performance levels will be used in a formal standard setting meeting taking place June 11-14. Around 100 educators will participate in this standard setting meeting, which takes place when a new or updated assessment is administered. Because new Forward Exam English language arts and mathematics tests were administered to students in grades 3-8 during spring 2024, this standard setting is required to establish achievement benchmarks. A similar process last took place in June 2016 after the previous Forward Exam ELA and mathematics assessments were administered for the first time. During standard setting, educators review live test questions in relation to the Wisconsin Academic Standards and recommend achievement benchmarks to the state superintendent.

In the 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, Wisconsin students noted a decrease in feeling like they belonged at school. Less than half (45%) of students who got a “C” letter grade, and just 24% of students who got a “D/F” said they felt like they belonged at school, survey data indicated. The updated performance level terms improve feelings of encouragement and motivation for all students, including those scoring lower on tests than their peers.

In December 2023, the DPI sent a survey to partners seeking feedback on potential updates to the descriptive terms. More than 800 responses and 500 comments were received from educators, administrators, parents, families, and education groups from across the state, with an overwhelming majority expressing support for descriptive terms focusing on a growth-based mindset.

A handout with more detail regarding the update can be found on the DPI’s website. Information on the Wisconsin Student Assessment System can also be found on the DPI’s website.