To the Editor:
When Rhode Island School Board head Maria Mancuso recently stated that she was “not going to get involved in a sideshow with 16-year-olds,” referring to a student from the Providence Student Union who wished to speak with her at a meeting about the NECAP test score graduation requirement but was rebuffed, I was puzzled. From what I can see, the NECAP requirement is itself nothing more than a sideshow.
The NECAP test is scored on a scale of 1 to 4, with a 1 being the lowest possible score and a 4 being the highest. A 3 is considered “proficient,” but a student only needs to score a 2 on their junior year NECAP in order to fulfill the requirement.
A careful look at what’s in store for the 40 percent of seniors who scored 1 last year reveals the true nature of the sideshow. These students will be made to retake the NECAP test later this year. It is important to understand that they only need to show “improvement,” and can qualify for diplomas even if this “improvement” isn’t enough to raise their NECAP scores above 1.
Among other things, this provides students who have consistently scored poorly on their previous NECAP tests with a perverse incentive to intentionally bomb the test in their junior year so that they will easily show “improvement” on the retake. These students tend to know who they are, as the first NECAP tests are administered as early as third grade.
Those who think that students are not aware of this loophole are mistaken. The truth is that students – even those who score poorly on standardized tests – are much brighter than some people seem to think they are. Furthermore, this generation is more networked than any generation that has preceded them. What one of them comes to understand, the remainder is quickly made aware of (provided they have a vested interest in the matter).
There are already seniors who are smiling and sitting pretty because they took advantage of this egregious loophole when they took their NECAP tests last year. Some of their classmates, who may not have been aware or may have felt that intentionally bombing a standardized test was either too risky or in some way unethical, are now kicking themselves.
Those low-scoring seniors who fail to show “improvement” on their first retake will be given a third test that is essentially the same as the NECAP but with different (I have heard them described as “easier”) questions. If they are given even a slightly simpler test, they will likely show “improvement” over their previous score and be eligible for graduation – without having learned anything new.
Failing this, students will be given a battery of tests unrelated to the NECAP, such as the Accuplacer, PSAT, SAT and AP tests. Each of these tests has a cutoff grade, and if the student makes the cutoff for even one of them, they will qualify for a diploma.
The bottom line is that many students will be allowed to graduate without having actually scored a 2 or higher on the NECAP. The purpose of the NECAP test requirement was to ensure that a Rhode Island high school diploma “meant something,” but even if we accept that a score on a standardized test has the sort of meaning that matters – and it must be remembered that the NECAP was not designed to serve as a barrier to high school graduation – the system that has been created does not actually ensure that only those students who demonstrate a minimal level of proficiency (a 2 on the NECAP) are in fact allowed to graduate. It fails to meet its stated goal.
Meanwhile, the money for all of these tests and the test prep programs that have popped up in schools around the state has had to come from somewhere. According to a June 14 WPRI article written by Dan McGowan, Rhode Island will have spent over $48 million on NECAP tests alone by the time they are phased out in 2017, at which point (according to RIDE spokesman Elliot Kreiger) RIDE plans to spend triple the amount of money on the newer PARCC test than it did on the NECAP in previous years. Note that this does not include the money that will have to be spent on the alternate tests mentioned above.
Couldn’t this money be better spent on something else, such as reviving our gifted and talented programs? Rhode Island is one of the worst states in the nation for these programs – rated “in the red” by the Davidson Institute for Talent Development – as they are neither mandated nor funded by law. Why must our best and brightest languish in courses designed to help them reach a minimal target on a test that, in the final analysis, they do not even need to reach in order to graduate?
The NECAP test requirement is indeed a sideshow, an expensive (and no doubt, for some, profitable) bit of theatrics that has sparked many emotional arguments but actually signifies very little, if anything. There are arguments worth exploring as to whether or not standardized test scores should be used as barriers to graduation, but regardless of their merits, the current requirement system is a great waste of precious resources that would be better spent elsewhere.
Ron Poirier is an English and ESL teacher in Pawtucket.