Hand-wringing over the RICAS test scores


Rhode Island rushed to adopt a new educational assessment, RICAS, patterned after Massachusetts' MCAS. The scores came in. Rhode Island students did not do nearly as well as their Massachusetts peers. Everyone rushed to a negative judgment. It might be time for some reflection.

Mass. adopted new curriculum frameworks during the middle 1990's. All students were taught according to the new curriculum. In the early 2000's, Massachusetts introduced the MCAS to assess student achievement. Massachusetts Department of Education data tells an interesting story.

From 1998 to 2013, the number of 10th graders considered proficient in ELA increased from 38% to 91% and from 24% to 80% in math. Between 2001 and 2013, students rated proficient in math increased by 14% for grade 3, 18% for grade 4, 18% for grade 5 and 25% for grade 6.

The MCAS is fully aligned to the curriculum frameworks introduced in 1997. Fifty percent of the ELA exam is based on authors listed in the frameworks. The math test is fully aligned to the math frameworks, which were aligned to the National Council of Mathematics Teachers.

In other words, there is a 100 percent alignment between the curriculum provided to students and the MCAS. Massachusetts has spent many millions of dollars in providing professional development to assure teachers are teaching the curriculum frameworks in turn assuring alignment between the written, taught and tested curriculum. Today's Massachusetts students have spent all of their schooling in this system.

Now, Rhode Island gets the idea that Mass. students are doing really well and somehow, short-sightedly, decides the Massachusetts success is based on the MCAS. Forget the frameworks the MCAS was aligned to, forget the professional development of teachers, forget twenty years of experience and the vast improvement of Massachusetts students' scores over that time. Rhode Island students should take its version of the MCAS and compare favorably to Massachusetts students.

Rhode Island does not have a consistent curriculum across the state so there is no consistent basis for determining the percent of alignment, statewide, of the RICAS to what students are learning. So, our students take the RICAS, their scores are no where near those of their northern neighbors and everyone cries out how deplorable our Rhode Island schools are. It should be pointed out that test scores are a reflection of how well students are learning the curriculum the tests are based on. Students can be learning vast amounts but if what is being learned is not what is being tested the test results will disappoint.

Rhode Island needs to follow the same process as Massachusetts in aligning the written, taught and tested curriculum and allow its students a reasonable amount of time to adjust to the new learning.

A satellite issue to the overall test scores is the test score gaps between students in poverty versus their wealthier peers. This is an issue that began with the G.W. Bush administration's No Child Left Behind. The so-called "learning gaps" were to be closed by 2014. The gaps did not close notwithstanding billions of dollars spent on NCLB and Obama's Race to the Top initiative. Massachusetts MCAS scores reflect the same gap between rich and poor.

The fault with NCLB was assuming the gaps originate in our schools. There are volumes of research pointing not to our schools but to the homes of our students. Learning is not confined to school. Children growing up in households with relatively well educated parents are learning far more at home than children living in homes of less well educated parents - as is often the case in poverty homes.

Needy children cannot be expected to learn, in a regular school day, all their peers learn in school and somehow also learn what their richer peers are learning at home. Central Falls is moving in the right direction by offering extended school day and Saturday programs. Using the added time to enrich needy children's lives with more music and art as well as exposing them to plays, musical productions, zoos, museums and farms will level the playing field for our neediest children. And, to Central Falls credit, its English as a Second Language students are doing far better at learning a second language than are most Barrington High School world language learners.

Educational achievement does not come from adopting a new test. It requires a sound alignment plan, well supported and implemented over an extended time. Our students can achieve and our schools are being successful.

A Cranston resident and former director of the Warwick Area Career and Technical Center, Joseph H. Crowley is the past president, RI Association of School Principals.


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