Rhode Island runs from the truth and eliminates high school testing

When ESSA, The Every Student Succeeds Act, passed and the president signed it, we knew it would happen: States would take the flexibility now afforded to them under federal statute to backslide on accountability.

But—maybe naively—I didn’t expect it to happen so quickly, before the rule-making around ESSA’s accountability provisions have even been finalized. We’re seeing it across the country, from Illinois to my state of Rhode Island, which has done an about-face on high school assessments over the past few months.

Commissioner Ken Wagner is in a tough position as he works to transition to the new federal law (ESSA). He wants to appease unions, respond to parents’ concerns about over-testing, dispel “teaching to the test” narratives, support the Governor’s push for free PSAT/SAT testing, AND actually ensure that Rhode Island’s kids learn to read and do math.

We all know that excellence is hard to achieve when we are trying to please everyone and I fear that again, Rhode Island students will take it on the chin while adult squabbles and short-sighted thinking rule the day. Apparently we prefer a reputation based on denial and avoidance to one based on truth and serving students long term.

On base, fewer math and literacy tests are great. If I were a high school student, I’d probably love it. The problem is that, as a high school student, I wouldn’t be aware of how my inability to show high school proficiency could impact my future aspirations.

Whether I wanted to go to a four-year college, a two-year college, the military, or study a trade, a diploma that doesn’t ensure I’ve mastered high school skills is likely to derail my plans. And by then, it will feel too late. By then, I’ll know the adults failed me.

Governor Gina Raimondo supports the decision, despite her usual push for us to be more like Massachusetts, a state that is #1 in education and requires students to pass a test in order to graduate. She told the Providence Journal:

“While the PARCC assessment remains a vital measure for school accountability in Rhode Island, we want to be sure that we strike a reasonable balance with the amount of time dedicated to test-taking and we don’t want to overtest our students. … Even more importantly, teachers, parents and students will know how our students are doing and how best to help them be prepared to compete in the global economy.”

Others in the education space see it differently. As they also told the Journal:

“If you aspire to be Massachusetts, then high school graduation requirements are going to have to have some consequences. If there are no consequences for students, teachers or the system, we end up with improved graduation rates but we haven’t measured whether they are living up to the standards,” said Tim Duffy, executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees.

Chariho School Supt. Barry Ricci applauds any reduction in testing, but he doesn’t want the state to abandon tying a standardized test to graduation. Without that incentive, he said, high school students will not have any reason to take the test seriously. “I don’t want to give kids the message that we’re lowering the bar.”

During the winter of 2010 during a mass teacher firing, the City of Central Falls made national headlines as a tale of adult interest versus student need. During the national discussion, then Secretary of Education Arne Duncan fixated on the number 7—the percentage of students proficient in math in the one-square-mile city. He was right to be outraged by the failure to get students where they needed to be. Knowing that 93 out of 100 students were not able to do math at grade level is a clarion call—and Central Falls has definitely taken up the mantle in recent years.

But Rhode Island still has whole urban schools and cohorts of students in suburban schools whose proficiency rates remain in single digits. Or, in some cases, whole suburban schools: In my hometown of Cumberland, our high school math proficiency rate mimics those of Central Falls (albeit on the decidedly more rigorous PARCC exam compared to our old test, NECAP). At Cumberland High School, 7 percent of students school-wide are proficient in math. Just 7 percent.

Instead of addressing this shortcoming head on, we let our own aversion to accountability drive us. We run from the truth. Again and again, our students pay the price. Our economy pays the price. Our whole state pays a price.

This post originally appeared in Good School Hunting.

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Erika Sanzi

Erika Sanzi

Erika Sanzi spent a decade as a teacher and school dean before becoming a full-time education advocate. Her love for writing coupled with her willingness to take on people in power has led her to spend much of her time responding to status-quo protectors inclined to put adult interests ahead of kids. She is particularly focused on inequities in the system, persistent but surmountable achievement gaps, and what she sees as a culture of low expectations that disproportionately impacts low-income students of color. She is the mom of three young sons and you can often find her on the sidelines of their countless sports practices and games. She is committed to the belief that zip code isn’t destiny, that parents deserve choices when it comes to educating their children, and that too many “good” schools are falling down on the job in too many ways. Born and raised in Massachusetts, she now calls Rhode Island home with her boys, her husband, and her big fluffy dog, Griffey. She writes about her corner of New England at Good School Hunting.

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