On Nov. 29, the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) released results for students, grades 3-8, on the new state test, The Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System (RICAS). RICAS is the latest in state tests designed to assess what students know and are able to do as measured against specific standards (we now have the Common Core State Standards nationally). The grade 10 PSAT and grade 11 SAT scores were also released.
A brief state test history
Looking back at our RI testing history, we have seen a series of tests: the New Standards Reference Exam (NSRE), the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP), The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), and now the Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System (RICAS).
It is important to know that since states across the country adopted standards in education, there has been a wide variation in the tests used to measure what students know. Different states have also come up with their own definition of proficiency. This means that one state can have a very rigorous test and a relatively high bar with fewer students “passing”, and another state can set a lower bar to achieve a higher pass rate.
Massachusetts has a rigorous test with a high bar. A national test called the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which is administered by the U.S. Government and is widely considered to be the gold standard, shows Massachusetts as the highest performing state in the country. This further validates that our neighbors are absolutely on the right track – not only is Massachusetts the best in the nation, they compare very well with high-performing nations around the world.
Rhode Island has a history of declaring a strong desire for higher student achievement, but has lacked the political will to uphold these standards in the face of community opposition. Here are two examples:
Graduation Assessment – Massachusetts has long had a requirement for students to pass a state assessment in order to graduate from high school. A few years back Rhode Island made an effort to emulate this model.
At the time there was substantial support for following the lead of Massachusetts with a test that measured student proficiency. NECAP was adopted as that test, with the requirement that students demonstrate “near proficiency” with a score of 2 out of 4. Compare this to the Massachusetts test, where students needed to receive a score of 3 out of 4 to be declared proficient. Despite these lower standards, criticism from around the state eventually led Rhode Island to abandon the idea of a test-based graduation requirement altogether. In contrast, Massachusetts continues to uphold their more rigorous graduation standard to this day, and it has worked – students in our neighboring state continue to lead the way with higher student achievement.
Professional development – Professionals in various occupations are typically required to undertake regular training or professional development to stay current in their fields. Education is no different – in Massachusetts, educators are required to take part in 30 hours of professional development each year.
Recently the Rhode Island Department of Education promoted the idea to emulate the 30-hour professional development requirement in neighboring Massachusetts. Facing political pressure, the proposed requirement was decreased to 15-20 hours, and while it would begin soon it won’t be fully implemented until 2030, the year when today’s preschoolers will graduate.
Embracing the undeniable facts
The critical fact about RICAS is that with its results, Rhode Island students are for the first time able to be directly compared to students in Massachusetts. These test results are a harsh reality check of exactly how poorly our students are performing. On the other hand, the results also give us a new baseline to effectively plan to move forward and raise student achievement in Rhode Island and specifically here in Warwick.
So where are we? If the whole of Rhode Island was considered a single Massachusetts school district, we would be in the bottom 10 percent of that entire state. Students in Boston scored higher than all of Rhode Island students. Notably, the bottom 5 percent of Massachusetts districts are taken over by the state for corrective action – and our entire state is just above that threshold. No district in RI achieved scores that reached the top 10 percent in Massachusetts. Here in Warwick our students scored in the lower third of all Rhode Island districts. This should come as no surprise – our district has historically scored in that range.
Myth of local excellence
“To measure is to know” ... “If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it” – Lord Kelvin
In Warwick, for as long as there have been standardized tests, the district has always scored in the bottom third of the state. Some will hearken back to a time when there was a feeling that Warwick was among the high performing districts in RI – this has simply never been the case.
I would submit that what may have been a good sense of school culture and climate, over time, has been morphed into a narrative of high student achievement that we have not seen...yet. But it is something we can and must strive to achieve.
It is very easy to at times to ignore bad news, to dismiss test data that does not coincide with how we feel about our schools. I urge everyone to pay close attention to this test data and commit to working together to make improvements. It is a call to action for all of us – teachers, parents, and administrators.
On the right path
Warwick has already implemented numerous programs and changes targeted at improving student achievement. Standards-based grading has been implemented in the elementary schools, which means that when we are teaching standards we are much more accurately measuring student progress. Classes at the high school level that provided students with a less-than-proficient curriculum have been eliminated. Now all students taking the state tests are being instructed according to the standards. We have also been working on establishing common and consistent expectations for students and teachers.
Examples of excellent work by our educators in Warwick are now evident. A team of committed teachers and administrators have been working hard for months to deliver a recommendation for a new math curriculum at the elementary and secondary levels. As our scores show, math is a critical area in need of improvement. The collaborative effort underway will position us where we need to be – seeing more students becoming proficient in math.
Administrators and teachers have been on several learning walks where groups of educators walk around schools to look at particular educational practices. High performing districts have found this practice to improve instruction and give educators an opportunity to reflect on what is working for students. Teaching is a challenging profession, and learning walks foster the collaboration and support needed to ensure that all of our students learn.
While these results present a challenge for the entire Warwick community, I am confident that we are positioned to prepare our students for success on the RICAS and much more. Our recently introduced District Strategic Plan contains a number of clear steps that must be taken in order to move forward. Our students are competing for jobs with our neighboring states, and only working together will we be able to provide them the skills and experiences that they need for college, career, and beyond.
Philip Thornton is the superintendent for Warwick Public Schools.