Jill Davidson: Students Need Meaningful Learning Experiences

Friday, March 08, 2013


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Jill Davidson says the arguments surrounding NECAP test scores aren't about low vs. high expectations.

Julia Steiny and I share many beliefs about what constitutes a meaningful, equitable, and effective education for the young people of Rhode Island. However, on March 8, Ms. Steiny wrote an article that castigates the many parents, teachers, students, school administrators, and community leaders who have been critical of Rhode Island’s plan to use the NECAP, a high-stakes standardized test to determine who should get a high school diploma next year. Unfortunately, none of this broad-based coalition’s actual critiques made it into Steiny’s piece. Instead, she posits a straw man argument: that this is about low vs. high expectations.

Pointing out that a single test score cannot measure the value of an education is not “affirming mediocrity,” as Ms. Steiny accuses advocates—and the general public—of doing. Arguing that creating a culture of high expectations requires a great deal more than slapping an irrelevant high-stakes test onto the end of a student’s 12-year school career is not affirming mediocrity (the test is irrelevant because the NECAP’s developers have warned that the test “should not be used … for making promotion and/or graduation decisions”). Asking how cramming for an arbitrary improvement on an arbitrary math test will somehow make students more college-ready is not affirming mediocrity; indeed, such cramming should not, as Ms. Steiny suggests, represent students’ commitment to “ramp up their game.” And declaring that a whole generation of students whose schools have failed them from a young age should not be used as cannon fodder to further a particular education reform agenda is not affirming mediocrity.

That is why a wide variety of organizations—including the Children’s Policy Coalition, the Urban League, the ACLU, Young Voices, and the RI Disability Law Center—support legislation to halt the state’s disastrous plan, which puts 40 percent of the state’s public school juniors at risk of not graduating. Still, Ms. Steiny can’t understand why anybody would oppose this requirement since, after all, “life is a test.” Indeed it is, and we wish for young people to be well-prepared for life by participating in meaningful learning experiences, not by jumping through hoops.

Along with the many others who stand opposed to using the NECAP as a graduation gatekeeper, I am all for high expectations for every young person in this state. I look forward to working with Ms. Steiny and others on identifying and implementing measures of academic and personal achievement that represent the high standards we have for our young people--and to ensuring that they have the schools and communities that will get them there. 

On March 16, the Providence Student Union will offer a shortened version of the NECAP to a diverse group of elected officials and community leaders. Before Ms. Steiny and others opposed to this legislation condemn a significant number of students to the unemployment and welfare lines, we have one simple request: take the test yourself. After all, if the NECAP is, in fact, such an effective measure of success that its score alone can determine a student’s qualification for a diploma, all of us who have experienced career and personal success as adults should be able to pass it as well. 

Jill Davidson is a parent of three Providence public school students, a member of the Providence Public Schools Parent Advisory Committee, and Director of Publications and Communications, Educators for Social Responsibility


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