September 2, 2014
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Controversy boils with tweets over NECAP tests

Frustration concerning the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) erupted on Twitter this weekend and carried on into the week, as a few students from Vets High School directly "tweeted," or publicly addressed State Education Commissioner Deborah Gist using vulgar language via the social media outlet.

Gist, who made the NECAP a graduation requirement for the class of 2014, replied to many of the tweets despite the fact that some students resorted to harsh name-calling and seemed to be personally targeting her rather than expressing their feelings about the statewide high-stakes test taken by all juniors. Not all tweets were from juniors, or Vets students, for that matter, as people of all ages chimed in to the discussion.

"They are children, and they are scared and frustrated. They need adults who keep high expectations and provide support," Gist recently tweeted as a result of the controversy.

The heated debate about the test surfaced, as preliminary results indicate that nearly 4,100 students in Rhode Island have scored substantially below proficient on the math portion of the test. Two out of five Warwick juniors are in jeopardy of not graduating on time; however, there is hope, as they are allowed to retake the test in October.

Gist also expressed displeasure for a mock-NECAP exam that was administered by the Providence Student Union, a student advocacy group, to 50 adults on Saturday. Test takers included Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island Affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), State Representatives David Bennett and Frank Ferri, plus other local politicians, lawyers and media representatives. Sixty percent of those who participated failed.

WPRO radio personality John DePetro, who broke the story relative to the Twitter issue earlier this week, re-posted some of the tweets to his Twitter account, causing the students to then target him. He said a couple of the tweets included offensive language.

During a recent phone interview with the Warwick Beacon, DePetro said that he contacted school officials and was sent a statement that cited school policies. It listed profanities as an offense.

As a result, Superintendent Richard D'Agostino announced that students who acted in such a way violated the Code of Ethics. His or her parents were informed, and each student was suspended. Vets Principal Gerry Habershaw was contacted for comment, but didn't respond in time for print.

For DePetro, he's shocked that students can be so disrespectful to adults, especially those in positions of authority such as Gist. Using profanity, he said, is "inappropriate" and "appalling," especially online.

"These kids are so brazen that they are sending these tweets right to Deborah Gist for all of the world to see," he said. "It's a real breakdown in a respect for authority. They have no shame. And here they are sending me vile messages and then they send me messages saying, 'Hey, give me a shout out on your show.' Gist is actually responding in a pretty calm way."

DePetro went on to say that students should discuss their frustrations with their parents and school officials, as opposed to turning to social media and insulting people.

On Tuesday morning, he interviewed Brown. They discussed the fact that Gist views the mock-test as a "damaging" stunt and an "outrageously irresponsible" act on behalf of the adults who took the test, with DePetro reading a statement made by Gist, which reads as follows: "I am deeply troubled to read reports in the media that a number of well-educated and highly successful adults in our community are sending the message to students that they do not need to succeed on our state assessments in order to be ready for college and challenging careers. This is not the message we need to be sending to students in our state right now."

In a phone call with the Warwick Beacon on Tuesday, Gist explained her desire to focus on improvement as opposed to testing. We need to stop worrying about testing and start taking action [to better our schools], she said.

Brown told DePetro that he feels Gist's comment doesn't address the substance of the issue or the point of the test. Later that afternoon, the Providence Student Union released the test results in the State House rotunda that 60 percent of test takers scored substantially below proficient. Using scoring guidelines of the Rhode Island Department of Education, four test takers scored proficient with distinction, seven scored proficient, nine scored partially proficient and 30 scored substantially below proficient.

"The adults taking the test and the response to it shows that the emperor simply has no clothes," Brown said to DePetro. "This is simply not an appropriate test to be using to determine whether or not a student graduates." He also pointed out that the mock-test was comprised of sample questions taken from the NECAP test, while DePetro said Gist claims the questions were "made up," and the test was a "scam." Brown continued, "Everybody who has been complaining about NECAPs as a high-stakes tests believes in high standards for students. The question is, 'Is NECAP the appropriate determinate of whether a student qualifies for a diploma?'"

Brown then read a portion he said is from the NECAP manual that says that the NECAP is only one indicator of a student's performance and should not be used for making graduation decisions.

Brown said he disagrees with the decision to suspend the students who tweeted Gist, as he believes it violates their freedom of speech. He said that while the ACLU does not condone the "very tasteless and crude nature" of some of the comments students tweeted, he is concerned that Warwick school officials are getting involved with students who tweeted outside of school. If the incident happened during school time, he said, it would be different. Instead, Brown said he thinks Gist took the correct position of engaging students and recognizing that they were venting online.

"If it's outside of school hours, it shouldn't be a school's business to be these 24-hour-a-day nannies," Brown told DePetro. "These weren't tweets to the school principal they were between the education commissioner a third party and the students. The commissioner responded in the way she thought was appropriate. The question is, if it's any business of Warwick to be getting involved with something the kids sent to a state official and I don't think it is."

Gist explained that she has always had an open-door policy, and encourages students and others sending her messages through Twitter to email her and explain their concerns. She is happy to hear them and wants to ensure students know the options and resources available to them in regards to NECAP. There is no desire to keep a diploma from any student, said Gist.

Those options include taking the test multiple times showing improvement, a waiver process so students with special needs can be accommodated and the ability to submit scores from exams such as the SATs to replace NECAP scores, if necessary. Gist also encourages students to take advantage of math tutors and modules provided to prepare for the state test.

On air, DePetro noted that he also felt Gist responded in a "mature" fashion. He tweeted, "To the students suspended in Warwick, learn a lesson. Show respect to teachers, coaches, adults. Do not listen to the ACLU," and later, "To all the students following me: do your homework tonight. Shut off your phone, iPod, and TV. Read a book."

But Gist told DePetro a few weeks ago that the NECAP is soon to be a thing of the past. The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, will be used in the near future.

"From what I understand, that's a harder test," DePetro said to a Beacon reporter. "It's only going to get harder from here; not easier."


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