By DANIEL KITTREDGE Cranston's students in grades three through eight saw their scores on the Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System, or RICAS, decline significantly in the first year the standardized testing was administered since the onset of the
Cranston’s students in grades three through eight saw their scores on the Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System, or RICAS, decline significantly in the first year the standardized testing was administered since the onset of the pandemic.
The results – which showed the steepest drops in math scores among the city’s elementary and middle school students – mirror a trend seen in communities across the Ocean State.
For Cranston Public Schools Superintendent Jeannine Nota-Masse, the latest RICAS figures are a new reminder of the challenges educators face in terms of improving student performance.
“I’m extremely disappointed,” she said in her office at the Briggs building on Monday. “In RICAS, even before the pandemic, we knew we had a lot of work to do. And then just as we were starting to get momentum, COVID happened. So it’s like two steps forward and three steps back.”
She added, however: “I’m glad we took it, because it is a wakeup call … It’s a part of a bigger picture.”
The RICAS, modeled after the standardized assessment system used in neighboring Massachusetts, has been in place in Rhode Island since the 2017-18 school year. It was not taken in 2019-20 due to the pandemic.
The 2020-21 testing was administered last spring. Statewide, 88.7 percent of eligible students took the English Language Arts portion of the RICAS exam, while 88 percent took the math portion. Both were down from prior participation rates of 98.7 percent.
For ELA, a combined 33.2 percent of students statewide met or exceeded expectations in 2020-21, compared with 38.5 percent for the 2018-19 year. For math, just 20.1 percent of Rhode Island students met or exceeded expectations in the latest testing, down from 29.8 percent in 2018-19.
Cranston saw even deeper declines in performance on both components of the testing.
For 2020-21, 82.8 percent of eligible city students took the ELA portion of the exam, with 33.3 percent meeting or exceeding expectations. That was down significantly from the 41.1 percent who met or exceeded expectations in 2018-19. That year, 99.3 percent of eligible Cranston students took the test.
For the math portion of the most recent testing, 82.1 percent of eligible city students took the exam and 14.6 percent met or exceeded expectations. That figure was roughly half the 27.9 percent who met or exceeded expectations in the 2018-19 testing. For that year, 99.2 percent of students were tested.
At the middle school level, Western Hills and Hope Highlands fared best on the testing.
For Western Hills, on the ELA portion, 35.1 percent of students met or exceeded expectations, down from 43.8 in 2018-19. That figure was 16.6 percent for math, down from 30.1 percent in 2018-19.
At Hope Highlands, 45.8 percent of students met or exceeded expectations in ELA for the most recent testing, down from 54.2 percent in 2018-19. For math, 30.1 percent of students met or exceeded expectations, down just slightly from the 31.1 percent who met that threshold in 2018-19.
Park View had 27.8 percent of students meet or exceed expectations on the ELA portion of the test, down from 39.4 percent in 2018-19, and 9.1 percent meet that threshold on the math portion, down from 19.8 percent in the prior testing year. At Bain, the percent of students meeting or exceeding expectations was 11.8 and 6.3, respectively, for ELA and math. Those figures stood at 16.3 and 11.8 percent in 2018-19.
At the elementary level, Woodridge, Orchard Farms, Stone Hill Oak Lawn, Garden City, Rhodes and Waterman all saw at least 40 percent of students meet or exceed expectations on the ELA portion of the test. Woodridge actually saw its met or exceeded expectations percentage increase from 2018-19, when it stood at 45.5, to 2020-21, when it reached 50.4.
On the math portion, the declines were particularly steep. Only Orchard Farms saw 30 percent of students meet or exceed expectations, although Stone Hill was close with 28 percent. For 2018-19, seven schools had exceeded 40 percent proficiency and three more had exceeded 30 percent.
On the Rhode Island Department of Education’s data portal for viewing the RICAS results, caveats are often included cautioning against year-to-year comparisons. In many cases, sharp declines in the number of students taking the exam in a particular school or district are cited.
An outline of the results provided by RIDE highlights factors at play in both the declining scores and the lower number of test-takers.
“COVID-19 impacted most aspects of education last school year, making it more critical to assess student performance and identify needs and priority areas,” it reads. “Despite exemplary efforts by school leaders to keep students in school, learning disruptions occurred during the year that led to hybrid/distance learning and reduced instructional time.”
It continues: “Changes in school format limited access to crucial academic and social-emotional supports for students. In 2021, unlike most states, RI administered its full assessment to better gauge the effects of the pandemic on student learning. Like most states, RI did not administer state assessments in 2020 due to the pandemic. Fewer students participated in state assessments, especially those already facing extraordinary barriers to participation, and some student groups were over/underrepresented.”
Nota-Masse echoed many of those points from a Cranston perspective. She said while the district worked to return students – and particularly younger children – back into classrooms to the greatest degree possible last year, significant disruption was impossible to avoid.
“If you think about it … it was almost like education was on pause,” she said.
She added: “It was just an awful, awful year, so we’re hoping that we can use this to propel our sense of urgency going forward … But I always say, kids are more than just test scores, right? They’re human beings who have all kinds of other stressors in their lives, especially little kids who went through this. And I think we’re going to see the effects of that for years to come.”
In terms of the RICAS specifically, Nota-Masse said: “Some kids who hadn’t stepped foot in school all year came in to take RICAS, and you know, it’s just a different mindset, it’s different behaviors, it’s different expectations.”
Nota-Masse said the district is receiving significant support through federal ESSER, or Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, funding, and officials are “really focusing on where the needs and how we can best try to address them.”
Social-emotional supports, she said, are a primary consideration.
“The idea that kids process trauma differently than adults do is significant, and I think when you just look at test scores, separate and apart from the little humans that they’re coming from, that’s not a good way to look at it,” she said. “So you really kind of have to look at the whole picture, and how are we making kids feel safe, comfortable and happy in school? Because once those things happen, learning can be facilitated much easier. So we’re trying to work on all of that.”
New research-based, state-backed curriculum in ELA and math at both the elementary and middle school levels are expected to help boost performance as well, Nota-Masse said. A return to normal classroom routines and other activities will also boost students. The superintendent said she is less focused on specific performance benchmarks for Cranston students than on seeing a return to positive growth in how students fare on the exams.
Beyond the focus on students, Nota-Masse said, staffing remains “one of our biggest challenges” as the pandemic wanes.
“We’re like all other employers when it comes to that stuff,” she said.
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