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Is Providence Doing Enough to Improve Student Performance?

Friday, February 15, 2013


Stagnant NECAP test scores are just one part of the picture in the Capital City.

Over the past five years, the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) has increased its emphasis on improving test scores in the annual New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP), so much so that beginning next year students will have to show that they are at least “partially proficient” in both the math and reading portions of the exam to graduate with their classmates.

But during that same time, the city of Providence has made little to no statistical improvement in either category and just as many students in the district stand at risk of failing to meet the requirements today as they would have had there been similar requirements to earn a diploma during the 2008-2009 school year.

In all, 23 percent of Providence students in 11th grade tested last fall (2,727 students) are currently “substantially below proficient” in reading while 45 percent of students (5,329) fall in that category for mathematics.

Five years ago, those numbers were at 23 and 46 percent respectively.

And while test results are not the only measure of a school district’s effectiveness, the lack of improvement in either category after five years of increased pressure and awareness of the importance of the exams raises a key question: Is Providence doing enough to improve student performance?

A Period of Upheaval

The so-called “educational crisis” in the Providence School System is nothing new.

In the past decade alone, the district has undergone four superintendent changes, fired all of its 1,900 teachers in a budgetary move by Mayor Angel Taveras, closed a number of schools, seen some of the lowest NECAP scores in the state, had one of Rhode Island’s highest dropout rates and cited a wide achievement gap between Latinos and other students.

“It is a district in crisis,” Providence City Councilman Luis Aponte said in a 2011 GoLocalProv story revealing that one in five schools in the district was failing. “There appears to be an instability in leadership and when you have unstable and transitional leadership you have a loss of vision.”

For the last year and a half though, the district has been run by Superintendent Dr. Susan Lusi, who many experts agree has begun to point Providence in the right direction.

But with time running out before anywhere from 2,700-5,000 students in the district may on the verge of not meeting graduation requirements, it’s only natural to wonder what must be done to accelerate the progress.

In August of 2011, 40 percent of the schools in the district were graded as failing. In July of 2012, it was 24 of 38.

Last year, Providence had the seven worst high schools in the state.

Those figures can not change overnight.

“I like Sue Lusi, I admire Sue Lusi,” said education consultant Julia Steiny, a former Providence School Board member. “I admire her for trying to do the collaboration with the unions, for trying to reach out to charters to get some more activity there. I appreciate that she understands that if she can’t get the discipline and the mental health issues to calm down that the learning will never happen. So I think one of Providence’s strengths now is that Dr. Susan Lusi gets it. Now, having said that, what are her options?”

A Testing Problem

Many students in the district say there simply hasn’t been enough time to adjust to the demands put in place by RIDE when the department mandated the new graduation requirements.

“They’re trying to shove what’s on the NECAP down our throats, instead of us doing real learning,” said Marcus Dube, a junior at Hope High School. “And even then, there’s a lot on the test that we haven’t seen before.”

“Testing should not be as important an evaluation as it currently is,” said Aaron Regunberg, a staff coordinator of the Providence Student Union. “To succeed in the current economy, people need to be able to do creative, higher-order thinking. They need to be able to think critically and problem solve. They need to be able to work in groups. A standardized test can’t test these things, which means students won’t learn to do these things, and that is an urgent long-term catastrophe.”

Even RIDE Commissioner Debra Gist acknowledges Providence has room to grow.

“The NECAP results that we released last week show that the Providence schools have made modest improvements over the past four years in both mathematics and reading, though we would like to see more dramatic improvements in student achievement in the coming years,” she said

Pointing to a 14-point improvement at the Vartan Gregorian Elementary School as a positive example in the latest results, Gist has also lauded the district for an increase in AP program participation.

“Participants (students who took an AP exam) included 57 students at Central High School, 47 students at the Hope schools, 15 students at Mount Pleasant High, as well as 333 students at Classical High School, which has the largest number of AP test-takers in the state,” she said. “These figures show me that the Providence schools are offering an array of challenging courses to high-school students across the whole district.”

And that is the core debate. How much emphasis should be placed on the NECAP tests as a whole when the district might be making substantial gains that don’t show up on a score sheet?

Why Providence is Different

“Test scores are just one indication of where students are,” said Representative Edith Ajello. “They don’t tell the whole story but they do certainly tell part of the story. How well they tell that part is determined by how good a job the test does of giving a picture of where students are and where they need more work.”

Ajello says that she feels that both the tests themselves and the state’s much-debated funding formula for education fail to factor in the unique attributes that make the Providence School District what it is and put the capital city at a disadvantage when compared to neighboring communities and municipalities.

Ajello points to the city’s large population of students living in poverty and large percentage of students who are English-language learners as two of the challenges Providence faces.
Steven Brown of the ACLU agrees.

“By nature of its size, its diversity, and the level of poverty, Providence has a student population facing greater barriers than most other school districts,” Brown said. “It is unfortunate to see time and resources wasted teaching to a test, rather than teaching what should be taught.”

“One of the dangers facing education in general and education in large city system in particular, is that they cannot counter-act the effects of poverty,” said Rick Richards, a former employee in the Testing Department at RIDE.“That is, they do not provide educational opportunities of sufficient worth and power that their graduates can succeed economically.”

Richards said Providence’s biggest challenge is also its biggest strength.

“I have seen how resourceful and resilient the students, teachers, and administrators are in Providence,” he said. “I wish people outside of Providence knew more about this reality and were more respectful of it. It is a huge strength and could be built upon.”

Providence school teacher Carole Marshall agrees.

“It's biggest strengths are its students and teachers,” she said. “Providence students for the most part are bright, resilient, and well-mannered young people who often have endured many hardships and taken on huge responsibilities by the time they reach high school. When they receive good teaching, they respond positively and they are appreciative. Standardized testing is not good teaching; in fact it's depriving Providence students of the education they could be getting.”

More Than a Money Problem

Many experts agree that Providence’s educational problems go beyond what could be fixed with more funding though, as with any district, additional financial backing would be welcome to hire new staff and attack some of the core issues that students face outside of the classroom.

“Providence’s educational problems are due in part to the fact that the district is significantly underfunded and lacks the resources necessary to successfully support a student population that faces an array of challenges (from poverty to homelessness to violence) that require a great deal of resources to overcome,” Regunberg said. “But in my opinion, it is also due to failures within schools, which need to do a better job of engaging stakeholders—students, parents, teachers, etc.—in the educational process. Until a school community takes ownership of and feels invested in a turnaround effort, you’re not going to see substantial change.”

Ajello says she would like to see more of an effort put in place to have teachers and teachers aides in schools work with small groups of students, or even individual students, to give them the individual attention they need to get to the next step.”

Steiny believes getting all the agencies “to one table” and putting an emphasis not just on education but also social services and health services would lead to greater changes in the district.

It’s not, she says, something you can just throw money at.

“There’s school readiness, there’s college readiness and there’s work readiness,” she said. “The part nobody’s paying any attention to is readiness. Kids in Rhode Island have the highest rates of suicidal ideation, drug use, all kinds of social problems but basically nobody wants to pay attention to it.”

The Here and Now

In the meantime, while Providence attempts to focus on its longterm future, there is the very near-term issue of NECAP test results and the pressure for students to succeed.

It’s the type of crisis that could derail a district in transition.

“Providence is in the process of defining itself as an education system after a period in which it attempted to create a fairly top-down, monolithic system,” said Richards. “NECAP scores are a good first filter--they can tell a teacher roughly where a given student is in relation to a grade expectation. But teachers need more information than the NECAP provides to understand how to teach a student. This is where diagnostic tests come in, as well as the information a teacher has from just teaching a student. The NECAP is good for an initial screen, but not for a diagnosis.”

“I think it’s fair to compare test scores and progress district to district,” Ajello said. “I just think that when you look at test scores, it’s important to consider the demographics. I don’t think anybody would disagree with test scores aren’t a complete measure of the success of an individual student’s education or the success or need for improvement of a district as a whole.”

Worth Fighting?

So what can be done to alleviate a growing crisis in the Providence School District?

Some say the city should fight the state’s should roll back the ties between NECAP scores and graduation.

“The most important thing that Providence could do at this point is demand that use of the NECAP test as a graduation requirement be eliminated,” added Brown. “Too many school districts have been cowed into accepting the ‘high stakes testing’ mantra, to the detriment of students, teachers and the promotion of good educational principles. Providence should take a strong stand against NECAP, because seeking to play by RIDE’s rules is doomed to failure, and will unnecessarily doom hundreds of qualified students to failure as well.”

If RIDE’s plan isn’t altered, Providence will have to make a number of improvements very quickly or risk having thousands of students in this first test class meet the requirements for graduation.

“This could stifle the lives of thousands of students,” Regunberg said. “The district is not going to have the capacity to adequately support the thousand youth who are at risk of graduating (not to mention to accept all the students who might have to do another year), and RIDE’s doing nothing to help. There is a significant number of students whose lives will be truly harmed because of this policy.”

Meanwhile, Gist and RIDE pledge to do what they can to help Providence stay on track to continue its improvement.

“We at the R.I. Department of Education will continue to provide resources and support to the Providence schools through such initiatives as our Induction Program for beginning and second-year teachers and our Academy for Transformative Leadership, which prepares principals to work in low-achieving schools,” she said. “Working together, I am confident that we can make sure our Providence schools prepare all students for success in college and careers.” 


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