Can new tests unite state towards higher goals?

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The results from Rhode Island’s first year of assessing student achievement through the Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System (RICAS) exam – a test for grades 3-8 based upon the MCAS exam that has been administered in Massachusetts since 1998 – have been tallied and, by this point, you’ve probably seen the results. They are less than stellar. 

On average, students in Rhode Island scored 17 percentage points lower in English Language Arts (ELA) and 20 percent lower in mathematics than those in Massachusetts. Another assessment of the results revealed that, if Rhode Island as a whole were scored as one school district, it would be a district in the bottom 10 percent of Massachusetts. In Cranston, about 23 percent of students graded at or above proficiency in math, while about 35 percent graded at or above proficiency in ELA. A total of 4,796 (99.42 percent) of Cranston students took the tests.

The results provide an objectively dismal outlook on the progress of educational advancement in the state, however Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) commissioner Ken Wagner maintained during an interview on Friday that the test outcomes reveal a simple reality – Rhode Island is starting on a journey that Massachusetts started long ago.

“We are, today, basically identical to where Massachusetts was in their first release in 1998. And I think that’s the explanation,” he said, pointing to the fact that in 1998, only 34 percent of Massachusetts’ fourth graders ranked as proficient in math (27 percent ranked proficient in Rhode Island). “We have to view it as if we put the same structural pieces in place that they’ve put in place and we stick to it year after year, we’ll show the same results.”

Wagner said that, given Massachusetts has stuck with its assessment and educational strategy for over two decades now, this realization should not come as a surprise, but rather serve as a rallying call to all state officials and educational advocates that improvement is necessary – and only collaboration and commitment to an ongoing educational strategy (as measured by the RICAS) will lead there.

“I think we have to find a balance between the urgency of the work and feeling that it’s achievable,” he said. “I don’t think we can come out and depress everybody and think it’s unachievable; that won’t help. But I also don’t think we can take a casual attitude about this. We have to be urgent. Finding that mix between urgency and optimism is how we’re trying to move things forward.”

The plan to better Rhode Island’s academic status is much bigger than a change in testing. It encompasses multiple angles – everything from increasing attention towards early learning, implementing better curriculum, increasing pathways for students to access high-quality education anywhere in the state, increasing professional development opportunities and, perhaps most in line with the RICAS initiative, focusing on increasing educational standards and holding districts accountable to a higher bar of achievement.

“It’s all common sense, but it is a package, and you have to do it all together as a package,” Wagner said, explaining that the RICAS now gives the state a more accurate odometer to measure the distance traveled towards academic progress – one that is almost identical in form to the test taken by the indisputable leaders in American education.

Also grading that progress is the state’s own aspirational goals for 2025, which include long-term visions where 75 percent of third graders are proficient readers; 75 percent of eighth graders are proficient in STEM; 20 percent of students are at the highest levels of proficiencies on the statewide assessment and where 95 percent of students graduate high school within six years.

“This is our test,” Wagner said. “The whole purpose with everybody’s support of adopting this test was to stick to it for the long-term future.”

A ship on course?

For the first time, Wagner said, all parties in the state are on board the same ship and pointing in the same direction towards what they believe is an effective strategy to not only improve test scores, but to actually attain higher educational standards as outlined in the state’s long-term plan.

The choice to switch to the RICAS was unanimously agreed upon between state school officials, legislators, teachers’ unions and school committees. As opposed to the federal PARCC test, which had a high percent of districts opt out of it amidst controversy and concerns, the participation rate with the RICAS exam, Wagner said, is now at 98 percent.

Wagner said that now the test has been decided, real change can occur and be measured properly.

“It was a crisis of leadership, and I believe this is our moment to resolve it,” he said of the waffling history between state assessment exams in recent history. “People need to know that all of our leaders across all levels of our system were all in consensus that this was the way to move forward. And that is the power of this moment, that we’re all looking and pointing in the same direction.”

Still, Wagner also maintains that the true engine of progress remains the same, regardless of which test is used.

“It [the RICAS] helps people understand that the expectations are for real if they’re tied to a test, but a test itself can never improve outcomes. It doesn’t improve instruction,” he said. “The real engine of the work is teachers in classrooms with kids.”

This is where creating an emphasis on professional development opportunities for educators and school administrators becomes increasingly important. Wagner said a critical regulatory piece before the Rhode Island Board of Education for a vote today involves a reintroduction of mandatory ongoing professional development requirements for teachers, including the specification that they take charge of their own professional development opportunities.

Wagner also said it was important for districts to give teachers the freedom to implement curriculum that meet state standards and prepare students for the state assessment.

“I do think we need to unshackle teachers to do what they do best, but I also think we need to provide the resources so they don’t have to wing it,” he said. However, there’s also a fine line between preparing for the state assessment and so-called “teaching to the test.”

“I don’t want anyone to teach to a standardized test,” Wagner said. “I want people to teach to our learning expectations, our learning standards. Because if our curriculum and our instruction and our tests are all aligned to the same standards, then it will all fall into place.”

Equalizing opportunity

The disparity between urban and suburban communities provides another harsh challenge for Rhode Island, as students from school districts in the so-called Urban Core (including cities like Central Falls, Pawtucket, Providence and Woonsocket) scored dismally low in both ELA (17 percent proficient) and in math (14 percent proficient).

Students in districts that fall in between the suburban and urban distinction, known as the Urban Ring (which includes cities like Cranston, Warwick, East Providence and North Providence) fell in the middle – with 32 percent proficient in ELA and 23 percent proficient in math.

Compared to suburban communities – where students scored 49 percent proficient in ELA and 42 percent proficient in math – an economical chasm that dictates the quality of education in the state becomes glaringly apparent.

Wagner said this economic inequality isn’t just a Rhode Island issue, as it remains an issue even for the standard-bearer in the country.

“I don’t want to pretend that Massachusetts nailed everything. They still have large equity gaps, as do we, and we still have to close them, as do they,” he said. “But in terms of a broad rising of educational attainment, I think it’s a pretty straightforward process. Do what they did, and do it year after year after year like they did and, generally, we’ll see the same results.”

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justanidiot

This standardized testing craze is an attempt for companies to make yuge profits from schools. The companies produce the tests, the books to prepare the kids for the tests, training for the teachers (paid by the school department) to teach to the test, and on and on. Local control over education has been turned over to the edutainment/industrial complex. We need to break the model and put in a system like the Finns have. Their education system was a huge mess in the late 60's early 70's and they turned it around to be the best in the world.

Plus, if you look at Massachusetts's scores, they are better than RI by far but they are still churning out failing students, just at a lesser rate than here.

This is a plea for Warwick to be a front runner in education reform, from administrators, to teachers, to students, to parents. It can be done if all are willing to do what they are supposed to do.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018
richard corrente

Dear Readers,

As Ethan Hartley accurately reports, the findings for the Warwick School system "are less than stellar."

The teachers went through over two years of agony, not knowing if they had a job from one day to the next, with a Mayor and a School Department that refused to even sit at a negotiation table. To call this relationship "adversarial" is a major understatement. The resulting attitudes were predictable and understandable.

But that was then. This is now.

We have a new Mayor and a new School Committee and both are upgrades. This Mayor may not always agree but he doesn't go on 14 vacations in a 12 month timeframe either. He has a reputation for being available and so far, he has lived up to that.

This School Committee is the very definition of "new-and-improved". That improvement is the greatest news.

Here's a prediction:

The Warwick Schools improve by a fairly decent percentage. The proficiency scores improve, the teachers teach with an improved frame of mind , and the students benefit more than anyone.

Time will tell but all the pieces are now (finally) in place.

Merry Christmas everyone.

Rick Corrente

The Taxpayers Mayor

Thursday, December 6, 2018
justanidiot

wesa hab a new mayer and skul committy but we still hab the same crappy teachers and system. gigo master mayer gigo

Thursday, December 6, 2018
richard corrente

Dear Justanidiot,

As usual, you make a lot of sense. However, these same "teachers" now have a much-improved working climate. I believe that will improve their mind-set greatly. I believe that will improve their teaching skills greatly. I believe that will result in greatly-improved proficiency. I believe the students will benefit from all that...greatly.

I believe.

Merry Christmas old friend.

Rick Corrente

The Taxpayers Mayor

Thursday, December 6, 2018
CrickeeRaven

Justanidiot, I'm sure you see the glaring defects with the two-time election reject's statements, beyond his continued shameless pandering toward the teachers union.

"The teachers went through over two years of agony, not knowing if they had a job from one day to the next, with a Mayor and a School Department that refused to even sit at a negotiation table."

First, there are the very obvious lies: "two years of agony, not knowing if they had a job from one day to the next..."

As we know, the teachers declared work-to-rule in 2016, marched outside City Hall, and conducted sick-outs that were later ruled by a judge to be illegal strikes. At no point did they seem to be in "agony."

Also, there was never any discussion or suggestion about mass firings. Except for the increased number of layoffs that the school committee can now make -- which is something the teachers union accepted -- there was no danger of teachers losing their jobs, or even having their jobs threatened.

This is another case where the two-time election reject is making things up.

His statement about "a Mayor and a School Department that refused to even sit at a negotiation table" is likewise a blatant lie.

We know that Vincent Ragosta reported at least 25 meetings between city and school officials, including Mayor Avedisian, that concluded with a late-night agreement being signed in the mayor's office.

His continued attempts at bashing the former mayor are more of the same pathetic and disgraceful behavior that he has willingly and repeatedly shown through his comments on this website.

Honest, taxpaying voters will enjoy their winter holidays, happy in the knowledge that we kept the two-time election reject from having any impact or effect whatsoever on anything that happens in Warwick.

Thursday, December 6, 2018
justanidiot

eye is glad we can bribe da teachers to start learning are kids agin. those pore deers had to suffer wit a good paying job and working to rule for years and years. sadly for da kids dat were in da skuls at dat time had to suffer. oh well, it is all bight lites and sunshine spraying out of are asses now

Thursday, December 6, 2018
cat

Oh, the AGONY! Did they lose their jobs? Have to go on unemployment? Lose homes? No food on the table or heat in their homes? That wasn't agony. It was politics. There are thousands of RI's barely surviving or not surviving at all so your use of the word agony is completely out of place. You also used the word tortured to describe their contract negotiations and that too was a ridiculous thing to say. Frustrating? Sure. Annoying? Most definitely. Agony? NOPE

Here is a good word for you and very fitting: PANDERING

Friday, December 7, 2018