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Opponents Pledge to Fight High-Stakes Testing

Wednesday, February 27, 2013


A group of political leaders, educators, parents and students hope to overturn the RIDE's mandate tying NECAP scores to high school graduation.

The Rhode Island Department of Education’s (RIDE) decision to mandate students be at least “partially proficient” in mathematics and reading on their NECAP testing has been a subject of much debate for years.

But now, as an estimated 4,200 members of the Class of 2014 faces the very real possibility that they won’t graduate next year without improvement, education leaders, parents and students are calling for the department to back off of its high-stakes mandate before it’s too late.

And today, they may get their wish.

A pair of bills (H-5277 and S-177) that would eliminate the requirement will be heard in front of the House Health, Education and Welfare Committee this afternoon and a number of prominent political groups in the state—including the RI ACLU, RI Legal Services, Young Voices and the RI Disability Law Center, are urging the legislation get approved.

“"The news of these scores across Rhode Island is sad,” said Rick Richards, a retired employee of RIDE's Offices of Testing, School Improvement and School Transformation. “It is very scary for students, parents and our society, but it is not at all surprising. With 40 percent of the 11th graders in danger of not graduating, every parent in this state has to know that this way of determining graduation can put their child in danger. And, as parents think this over, they should realize that, in a very real sense, this is a crisis manufactured by policy makers at RIDE.”

A RIDE Experiment?

RIDE Commissioner Deborah Gist has maintained that the NECAP mandate is a crucial tool for the state to ensure that students that obtain a “meaningful” high school diploma and, earlier this month, she lauded the progress students made in mathematics and reading as a whole on the testing.

“As we move forward in our work toward transforming education in Rhode Island, our students continue to make progress, particularly at the high-school level,” Gist said. “We hope and expect to see continued improvement for all student groups in the coming years as we implement the new Common Core State Standards and as our accountability system focuses ever-greater attention on closing achievement gaps.”

The issue is, even with slight improvements in both categories, a large portion of students throughout Rhode Island had still not risen past the bare-minimum standard required to meet the “partially proficient” category. In math alone, a total of 4,159 students would need to retake the test and “show improvement” just to meet their graduation requirement.

"RIDE adopted a graduation policy based in political ideology, not evidence,” Richards said. “Unfortunately, RIDE's decision to adapt an unproven policy puts the class of 2014 center stage in an experiment that will, in many, many cases, be life changing. And, in all too many cases, this experiment will be devastating.”

At a press event yesterday at Pilgrim High School in Warwick, Richards read a quote from Block Island superintendent Robert Hicks, who was unable to attend.

"I am not opposed to a proficiency graduation test, but I do believe it is important enough to do right,” he said. “The NECAP was not designed and the partially proficient standard was not set for this purpose. That other student achievement tests do not replicate NECAP results for 11th graders reinforces the inappropriateness of the test's usage in this way."

The Battle Begins

Opponents of the mandate argue that the test is putting students across the state in jeopardy.

"Whether you live in East Greenwich, Narragansett, Warwick, Providence or Barrington, parents and community leaders must pay attention and recognize that their own children are at potential risk," said RI American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Executive Director Steven Brown. "RIDE's policy is creating an entirely new category of adults who, due to an arbitrary score on a test, will not have a high school diploma with which to get a job or continue on in their higher education. Sadly, many will be forced to carry this stigma undeserved.

Brown said the test is particularly unfair to students with learning disabilities or “anxieties that prevent them from performing adequately on the test.”

“More importantly, it is about denying diplomas to students using a test never meant to be used in this way,” he said. “The thought of the fate that awaits many of these students is unfathomable. Unless this is stopped, RIDE's implementation of high stakes testing will unfairly change the course of these students' lives and prevent them from showing their true potential."

No Alternative?

Even though RIDE has a system of alternative tests, waivers and appeals in place for students who do not pass their NECAP exams, some feel the process is still unfair and shouldn’t be used to justify the testing mandate.

"This is misleading," said Veronike Kot, an attorney at Rhode Island Legal Services. "In fact, as opposed to helping students succeed, the alternative tests available to students are generally more difficult, and waivers are, by RIDE's own terms, available only 'in extremely rare cases.' Unfortunately, the talk of these limited and exclusive options is giving parents false hope."

At least one State Rep feels high-stakes testing might go too far and put too much importance on a number.

“Test scores aren’t the only thing,” Rep. Edith Ajello said recently. “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.”

At the same time, however, Ajello feels some importance must be placed on an impartial measure of student progress.

How much is the debate.

“I think it can be a problem for students who have a hard time taking tests who either get very nervous or might have a bad day,” Ajello. “I think tests are snapshots of where a student is on a particular day so I think graduation requirements should be on a range of things, which includes test scores but also includes grades through the years a student is in school and perhaps performance portfolios showing an array of their work and capabilities.”


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