Education Commissioner Deborah Gist says she is “thrilled” about her contract renewal last week and is “enthusiastic about the work we’ve been doing and is certain we have more to do.”
Gist’s many critics are not as enthused.
Warwick resident Deb Rossitti described her reaction to the contract renewal as “resigned disappointment.” Her son Raymond is one of the 253 Warwick juniors at risk of not graduating if he cannot show improvement on his NECAP score. Raymond was only one point shy of proficiency and now, according to Deb, he is “disgusted that he has to go through all of this.”
Deb and Raymond were the subject of a June 4 Beacon article entitled “Point shy of proficiency makes for troubling times for Vets junior.” As a direct result of that article, Deb has found her new mission.
During a phone interview Monday, Deb revealed that Representative Eileen Naughton (D-Warwick) read the article and contacted her to discuss the issue.
“A young man getting A’s and B’s and is now subject to this,” said Naughton in a phone interview yesterday. “My heart goes out.”
Naughton explained that reading the story about Deb’s request for information about SAT scores replacing NECAP scores prompted her to act.
“I just thought ‘she deserves to have an answer.’ A lot of others are interested in that as well,” said Naughton.
Deb had been writing letters to a number of city officials, representatives, media outlets and school administrators since the scores were released in February. She had received no responses.
That changed following her conversation with Naughton. The representative has been studying the NECAP testing issue for sometime, even submitting legislation to ban the use of the test as a graduation requirement in February.
After speaking with Deb, Naughton sent a letter to Gist asking why the commissioner had failed to respond to Deb’s letter regarding SAT scores substituting NECAP scores and requesting the information herself.
Deb says she had a two-page letter of apology from Gist in her email an hour and 15 minutes later.
“Gist must have known [Naughton] was the co-sponsor of this bill,” said Deb.
In her apology letter, Gist addresses Deb’s concerns.
“I believe that one test score alone should not determine whether one is ready to graduate, nor do I believe that a test score alone is a reasonable way to measure achievement,” wrote Gist. She continues explaining that the NECAP score is just one element contributing to one’s ability to graduate, along with grades, senior projects and others.
Gist’s letter explains to Deb that Raymond will need to retake the NECAP in October and again in the spring if necessary. He can only submit scores from an alternative assessment such as the SAT after the October test.
“The reason is that students have been taught with a curriculum aligned to our state standards, and the NECAP specifically reflects those standards,” wrote Gist.
“She is saying one thing and doing another,” said Deb.
Gist concludes her letter by expressing her belief that Raymond will succeed.
“I believe that Raymond may even be able to surpass the minimum requirements and meet the level of proficiency which will qualify him to receive a Regent’s Commendation on his diploma,” wrote Gist.
But Deb will not accept that. Her conversation with Naughton has set her on a new path.
Deb says she plans to start a weekly letter campaign regarding Naughton’s NECAP legislation and will encourage all concerned parents to contact their state legislators, asking them to support House Bill 5277 and Senate Bill 117.
Naughton introduced her bill on Feb. 6 and it was referred to the House Committee on Health, Education and Welfare, where it has been since.
“I could see issues like Raymond’s,” said Naughton when asked why she created this bill. “The NECAP is not validated for high school achievement. It is validated for evaluating schools on course material for No Child Left Behind.”
Naughton believes RIDE’s [Rhode Island Department of Education] decision to turn the NECAP into an “all-purpose test” is inappropriate and hurting not only students like Raymond, but those in vocational programs and those with Individualized Education Plans (IEP).
The representative says that the majority of students do not take higher-level math classes to learn some of the areas featured on the test because colleges or technical schools do not require them. Even if they do, most students won’t have taken it by the start of their junior year when NECAP is taken.
“RIDE should have known the majority of students do not take these courses,” said Naughton.
Naughton has done her research on this subject as well. She discovered a peer-reviewed study from the National Academy of Science that looked at high-stakes testing. She said it revealed that the added stress of high-stakes testing can lead to inappropriate behaviors, teaching to the test and more issues.
When Naughton learned that RIDE had never read this report, she passed it along.
“I gave it to them, but it did not make a difference,” said Naughton.
Naughton, a strong supporter of both arts and sciences, believes that requiring students who fail to meet proficiency on the math NECAP to take remedial math classes will be damaging to the other subjects.
Finally, Naughton revealed that requiring 4,100 students to retake the test is costing the state.
“The state paid almost a million dollars to develop the retake. And students cannot submit their SAT scores until after the first retake,” said Naughton.
So now, Naughton and Deb must turn to the General Assembly to help their cause.
Both bills call for notification to parents if a student scores “significantly below proficiency” on any state assessment and would prohibit a state assessment from being used to determine one’s ability to graduate from high school.
Bill 5277 reads, “any such assessments shall instead be used to promote school and district accountability and improvement and to target early and intensive remediation to individual students and to at-risk student subgroups.”
Although her bill has been in committee since February, she is hopeful it will pass before the close of session.
“I polled the committee. I find them quite positive on it,” said Naughton. “I want a decision on this. Four thousand one hundred-plus students and parents are very concerned about this.”
The senate companion bill has been held in the Senate Education Committee since it’s hearing on April 24.
Naughton is also hopeful if her bill passes, next year’s seniors will be able to take their well-deserved electives instead of NECAP re-vamp classes.
“This is your reward; senior year you can take your electives,” said Naughton. “[Raymond’s] exciting senior year is now a repeat.”
“The big thing now is that people need to know there is legislation and they need to call or write whoever about it,” said Deb.
In addition to Naughton, Deb says she has received a response to one of her letters from U.S. Senator Jack Reed saying he would be looking into the NECAP situation as well.
When asked about plans for the future, Gist said that the state is now three years into the implementation of a five-year plan to improve education and she does not plan to make any changes. She said changing plans while on course results in more confusion and less progress.
“We don’t get the traction we need,” said Gist.
She was also adamant in pointing out that both NECAP testing requirements and teacher evaluations were in place before she became commissioner. “They’ve been in place for 10 years.”
She says the plan began in 2003, was revised in 2008 and revised again when she took over the position.
“I think we are staying very faithful to our plan. We’ve taken on a lot in the past four years. People need to take the time to absorb it and make sure it goes right,” said Gist.
Another legislator keeping an eye on Gist is Senator James Sheehan (D- Narragansett, North Kingstown). As chair of the Senate Oversight Committee, he says he has a responsibility to ensure laws are interpreted correctly and he has been looking into Gist’s policy that would eliminate seniority from layoff and rehiring policies.
“The commissioner has taken it on herself to interpret the law; her job is to execute the law,” said Sheehan.
He sent a request to Board of Education Chair Eva Marie Mancuso in late April, requesting the Board look into Gist’s statement in a Jan. 31, 2013 letter to all superintendents that severe action would be taken on districts that make use of seniority, job fairs or bumping to assign, keep or layoff teachers. Action included loss of certification for individuals and loss of state aid.
Sheehan cites Rhode Island General Law 16-13-6, which states that laid-off teachers will be re-hired based on seniority with the exception of certain teachers of technical subjects that cannot be filled by earlier appointment. He believes Gist is taking an “expansive construction” view on the law, saying all teachers have a unique technical skill to teach their subject, making the law’s exception too expansive.
Sheehan says he can find no legal backing for this.
During a phone interview on Monday, Sheehan said Mancuso responded to his request and plans to look into the matter. The Board has put in a request in the state’s budget to hire independent legal council as opposed to using RIDE’s attorney for this situation.
A teacher at Toll Gate High School himself, Sheehan sees the reported low morale firsthand and says many teachers are concerned about the profession.
“[The teaching profession] seems to have been hurt under this administration,” said Sheehan.
When contacted, James Ginolfi, president of the Warwick Teachers Union, respectively declined to comment for this story.
While Sheehan says bosses rarely win popularity contests among employees, when 85 percent of teachers don’t want the boss back, Sheehan sees that as a call for increased communication.
“Public schools are not corporations. They do not run this way,” said Sheehan, citing Gist’s training in “corporate reform.”
While Sheehan is looking into Gist’s seniority policy, he does praise others.
“Commissioner Gist can be given credit for getting her information out to the public,” said Sheehan. “She did a nice job with the school funding formula.”
Communication is something Gist hopes to improve over the next two years.
“All modifications are based on feedback from the community,” said Gist. “We just need to handle it differently so [teachers] see we value their input. We need to show that they are the most important part of a child’s education.”
The Board of Education is also planning to keep their eyes on this situation. Gist will now undergo quarterly performance reviews going forward.
“They said they would hold her accountable, but I don’t think anything will come of that,” said Deb. “I think they did that to appease those three board members [that did not vote for a contract renewal].
While Deb is looking to state legislators to pass legislation that will help students, Sheehan is putting his faith in the Board of Education.
“If the Board of Education asserts itself and works with rank and file leaders, it will get better. But those are just words right now,” said Sheehan. “If the chair is true to her word and leads a restart, then yes, [teachers] can work with the board.”
But if things don’t change, Sheehan is unsure what the future holds.
“If not, I fear for not only teachers, but for the quality of education for our children,” he said.
In addition to increasing communication, Gist says she will begin looking at redesigning teacher and principal preparation at Rhode Island’s colleges and universities.
“We have a lot of work to do to make sure it is the best in the country,” said Gist.
Gist says she is also always supportive of providing innovative technology in classrooms, duel language programs and arts education. As Gist looks down the road at the state’s next five-year plan, she says those areas will be included.