There’s no easy way to face the music of an unenviable situation. In Rhode Island’s case, that situation involved releasing the results of the first year of testing in the state’s schools based on the Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System (RICAS), a version of the MCAS test that has been the basis of measuring standards in our northern neighbor since the late ’90s.
To view these results is to come to grips with something that will be hard for some to accept. Despite being just a short drive away from their schools, there are many, many metaphorical miles between the quality of educational systems in the Ocean State and in the Commonwealth.
The tests are largely similar and based in the same standards as Massachusetts, and yet Rhode Island is scoring on average of all scores combined as many as 20 percentage points lower in math and 17 points lower in English Language Arts as Massachusetts. Rhode Island, if combined into one large “district,” would fall into the lower 10th percent of the Massachusetts system – which would put it on the verge of being taken over by the state for its lack of efficacy.
Swallowing such facts will never be pleasant, but like a sick child gagging down a repugnant spoonful of menthol-flavored cough medicine, it must be done for the good of our kids.
Accepting this reality means that we can no longer project a false one to ourselves, and can no longer accept lines from elected officials that we are merely steps away – the right person in charge, the right set of regulations, the right test, etc. – from being on par with Massachusetts. These test results confirm one thing without question. Only a slow commitment throughout many years will allow us to build towards a future where we see educational proficiency rise to levels that are acceptable.
It is not acceptable for only one in four students statewide to be proficient at math. It is not acceptable for only one in three students to be efficient in knowing how to analyze works of literature and produce written copy that demonstrates a sufficient knowledge of grammar and structure. The lack of these two skills will be a detriment to a young person for the remainder of their life.
Now that the bar has been established, we also know where the bar needs to go. In regards to this reality, we give credit to RIDE commissioner Ken Wagner for emphasizing the need to get all parties on the same page regarding how we measure academic success of our state’s educational strategies and the individual efficacy of our districts – and the need to actually stick with this testing metric.
Consistency is perhaps the single most important factor that has allowed Massachusetts to become such an educational powerhouse in the country. They consistently have had governors and legislators that understood the importance of funding education. They had a longtime chairman of their education board – the late Mitchell Chester – who understood both the importance of exploring changes for the good of the state and hearing out the voices of those who had concerns about such proposed changes.
Rhode Island has had anything but consistency, and standardized tests are simply one example of that fact. Wagner succeeded a commissioner who, in the eyes of some, tried to implement too much change, too fast in the state, ultimately resulting in her departure to less turbulent waters. Wagner has demonstrated a calm ability to examine the educational reality for what it is in Rhode Island, and push for common sense reforms that should generate results, as long as we seriously commit to such reforms.
Some have criticized the state for failing to enact certain policies that Massachusetts has long since implemented in their system – such as passing the standardized test being a requirement for graduating. We would argue that, unless there is some proven metric that shows this requirement helped Massachusetts attain high results in a short period of time, implementing such a policy might do more harm than good.
Rhode Island is into the first year of the RICAS. The test is more difficult than students saw on the PARCC, or on the NECAP or other tests of the past. Students, teachers and administrators need time adjusting to how to best prepare for this assessment, and to hinge graduation on any standardized test, let alone a brand new one, certainly warrants ample discussion prior to being enacted.
The reason we’re inclined to give Wagner the benefit of the doubt when it comes to rising the standards and, in doing so, rising our achievement, is because he has taken the steps to accurately assess just how behind we are, and how far we have to go. He has also not taken that reality as his cue to flee the state – in fact he is trying to draw us a road map and appears poised to see through his initiatives to whatever end they lead.
He has quite a journey to make, however, as the numbers also outline a far more sinister problem regarding lesser economic opportunity translating to lower test scores. In some cases, districts in suburban Rhode Island communities score 30 percent higher than urban communities. This is symptomatic of a problem much bigger than test scores.
As our children’s future hinge on their ability to receive a good education prior to adulthood, we truly hope Wagner earns a passing grade in the years to come.