At the State House Tuesday, Education Commissioner Deborah Gist was smiling as she commended students, teachers and leaders for their support for education reform in Rhode Island. Despite her positive demeanor, however, many question the true state of education in the state when it comes to high-stakes testing.
While Gist was impressed with the support of school districts, a survey released on Tuesday by the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals and the National Education Association of Rhode Island shows she actually does not have the support of most teachers.
The telephone survey conducted by Fleming and Associates asked 402 public school teachers a series of questions regarding Gist’s leadership. The results show that 68 percent of teachers believe morale is poor under Gist, 63 percent of teachers found Gist’s communication with teachers poor, 72 percent of teachers felt that NECAP should not be a graduation requirement and 85 percent said Governor Chafee should not renew Gist’s contract in June.
When Gist began to address the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) as a requirement for graduation, Warwick Representative David Bennett took notice. Gist admitted that 4,100 high school juniors run the risk of not graduating with their class if NECAP scores do not improve, but was “confident our schools will achieve this goal [of improving scores].”
“There are too many students that are going to fail,” said Bennett in a phone interview yesterday. He questions Gist’s decision to move forward with this process, especially applying it for the Class of 2014.
“If these kids don’t graduate, they are in worse shape than if they graduated under the old system.”
While Bennett is supportive of education reform and the concept of “putting a fire under the students to get them moving,” he believes that high-stakes testing will only hurt students.
“We need to look at the whole system,” said Bennett. “[Gist] should work it out to where it is more rounded.”
Bennett says he has spoken with students who were getting A’s and B’s under the old system but run the risk of not graduating because of a “stressful” and “anxiety-provoking” test.
By making the test a requirement for graduation, Bennett believes students are becoming discouraged.
“Some of us will do well in college. Some of us won’t do as well in college. Not everyone is college material,” said Bennett, who believes teaching to the individual student is more beneficial than a test. “Everybody should be up there in a perfect world, but we don’t live in a perfect world.”
Outside of the State House prior to Gist’s speech, members of the Providence Student Union held their own “State of The Student Address” to voice their concerns with Gist’s policies.
“We feel that some of the things Commissioner Gist is doing are wrong,” said Danise Nichols, a senior at Mount Pleasant High School. “All the teachers and grown-ups are deciding this and the students get left behind.”
Nichols listened to Gist say that teachers are not just “teaching to the test,” but she says that is exactly what is happening.
Yvette Gonzales is a freshman at Mount Pleasant and when she heard Gist say the reform was supporting students’ futures, she had to disagree.
“If we don’t pass this test, our future will be destroyed,” said Gonzales. “They are sticking us in one line.”
Since the tests are focused on math, science and English, Gonzales questions how students with passion for other subjects such as history or the arts are being affected.
Bennett added that it appears Gist is focusing on sending all students to universities to receive better paying jobs, which he says is great, but leaving behind students who would rather graduate and learn a trade.
The youngest of six children, Bennett admits that even he was not the best student when he was younger. He eventually became motivated and followed his own path to become a registered nurse; he believes that education should be encouraging students to follow their individual paths, even if they don’t lead to college.
Bennett also said the idea of testing one’s performance is a good one, but maybe students would be better served by taking a college entrance exam such as one used at the Community College of Rhode Island.
“Do something to see if they can get into college,” said Bennett. He added that while NECAP testing may not be working for the Class of 2014, Bennett said it has potential for future students, including his own 13-year-old daughter.
“By the time she is in 12th grade, she will probably have a handle on it,” said Bennett, adding that she has already been successful with some NECAP tests.
Despite all of the questions and criticism, Bennett does not see Gist budging on her stand on high-stakes testing. He explained that Gist had a question and answer period with members of the General Assembly scheduled for yesterday afternoon.
“I know my colleagues are going to hit her with a lot of questions,” said Bennett.
Aside from his concerns about NECAP testing, Bennett said Gist’s other goals, such as implementing all-day kindergarten across the state and the use of technology in classrooms, are excellent.
Representative Joseph McNamara was also impressed with Gist’s remarks about making Rhode Island students successful in an increasingly global world. The Warwick representative said that Gist’s goal of “linking success in a global economy to education” was great, and internship requirements and funding for high education “is in everybody’s best interest.”
In her address, Gist also mentioned McNamara’s recent package of school safety legislation; McNamara said Gist had been very supportive of the package since the beginning. House bill 5941 passed on the House floor on April 24 and is awaiting a hearing before the Senate Education Committee.