In a commentary published recently in this and other newspapers, Deborah A. Gist, Rhode Island’s Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education, “told the truth” about high-stakes testing in a set of questions she asked herself. Many of her answers were very misleading and a few were just opinions. Here are some of the most important ways the commissioner failed to be fully truthful.
1. She says it is appropriate to use the NECAP as a graduation requirement. The truth is that the NECAP is built to measure school performance. You can tell this from the test blueprint, which specifies that the questions sample a wide range of difficulty. This is necessary to measure the wide range of achievement across the state. The test must create a scale that spreads schools apart. However, this blueprint is inappropriate for a graduation requirement, which doesn’t need to show the differences between students—it only needs to show whether a student has passed.
2. The Commissioner asserts that the NECAP asks students to show thinking and reasoning, ignoring the NECAP technical report, which shows that 92 percent of the grade 11 NECAP reading test is at depth-of-knowledge levels 1 or 2—in other words, mostly lower level cognitive processing. She seriously over-represents the ability of the NECAP to elicit high-level thinking.
3. The Commissioner states that using the NECAP as a graduation requirement does not encourage test preparation or teaching to the test. But she has not produced the kind of evidence about instructional practice that would support her opinion. There is abundant evidence that contradicts this opinion. A teacher who read the Commissioner’s statement responded:
“As someone who works in a school that performs well, I can attest to the fact that every teacher has to teach to the test. It would be logistically crazy not to teach to the tests, especially when your results are being evaluated.”
We have heard similar stories from many teachers, students and administrators. The Commissioner’s assertion flies in the face of the lived experience of an overwhelming number of educators. If you have any doubt, talk to a few teachers. Most tell you that, to some degree, they teach to the test and they must do this because the test is such an important component of a highly punitive evaluation process.
4. The Commissioner claims that the schools that do well on NECAP are the schools that “provide great instruction that engage students on many levels.” How does she know this? There is no data generated by a reliable process that can tell her this. What we can reliably say is that the schools that do well on NECAP are largely the schools attended by children whose parents are well off.
5. The Commissioner’s flat-out denial that “the NECAP requirement penalizes students who haven’t received an adequate education” is egregious. To see why, look at how failing the NECAP will impact students with learning disabilities. In 2011, RIDE reported a graduation rate of 58.1 percent for these students. But, only 17 percent of these students achieved higher than a 1 on the math section of the NECAP last year, suggesting that the graduation rate for these students will be nearly three and a half times lower! If such a high proportion of students fail to reach the math standard, it can only be attributable to inadequate education.
Will students be penalized when their diplomas are denied? Economically, we know that students without diplomas earn an average of nearly 40 percent less than students who have (only) a diploma. Students without a diploma have an average national unemployment rate of 12.5 percent, which is 50 percent higher than the unemployment rate of students with (only) diplomas, so this policy heavily penalizes earnings.
It is worth mentioning that 50 percent of the current ACI population did not receive a diploma and a recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found a strong connection between high school exit exams and increased incarceration rates. Beyond individual harms, denying diplomas penalizes society in ways not acknowledged by the Commissioner.
6. Perhaps the most deceptive claim is that students don’t need to pass a standardized test in order to graduate because “in Rhode Island, we use multiple measures to determine whether students are ready to earn a diploma.” The truth is that students need to pass ALL of the multiples measures. This means that failing any ONE measure will prevent a student from graduating. So the proper answer to this question is: “students CAN fail to graduate on the basis of a standardized test, OR on the basis of passing too few courses, OR on the basis of not completing a performance-based demonstration of proficiency.” It’s a triple jeopardy system.
At the very least, students and parents deserve an honest conversation and we ask the Commissioner to stop misrepresenting the facts.
Ken Fish, retired Director of High School and Middle School Reform at the Department of Education led the development of RIDE’s high school regulations. Anne Mulready is Supervising Attorney, Rhode Island Disability Law Center, Inc.