ON A SATURDAY MORNING LAST MARCH, 50 people sat down with their No. 2 pencils and began to fill in the bubbles on the New England Common Assessment Program, or NECAP, the standardized test used to evaluate students and schools in Rhode Island. Sixty percent failed the test.
The test-takers were not high school juniors, who typically take the NECAP across the state each October. Rather, it was a group of adults, including the executive director of the Rhode Island branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, two state representatives, politicians, and lawyers. They were brought there by the Providence Student Union, a coalition of urban high school students, as part of a protest against making the NECAP a graduation requirement, a decision that will, for the first time, affect this year’s graduating seniors. PSU has been opposed to expanding the role of high-stakes testing since its formation three years ago.
Deborah Gist, Rhode Island’s education commissioner, has been one of the state’s most vocal proponents of high-stakes testing since she took the position last year. She called it “an outrageous act of irresponsibility” for adults to participate in the mock exam. State Board of Education Chair Eva-Marie Mancuso asked community members to focus their energy in a different direction—towards “improving opportunities and outcomes for our students.” After the stunt, students in Warwick tweeted angrily at Gist and were suspended. Radio personality John DePetro, who broke the story of the tweets and drew the superintendent of schools’ attention, addressed the students on the air: “Learn a lesson. Show respect to teachers, coaches, adults. Do not listen to the ACLU.” He added, “Shut off your phone, iPod, and TV. Read a book.”
THE MOCK EXAM WAS MORE a cry for attention than a demonstration of the NECAP’s actual level of difficulty, but its results were not far off from the results of the exam in many parts of the state. Students must rank “partially proficient” on the math, reading, and writing portions of the test in order to graduate. That means that this year alone, about 40 percent of seniors risk not graduating if they cannot pass the math portion of the test on the second or third go-around. At four Providence high schools—Alvarez, Central, Hope, and Mount Pleasant—more than 80 percent of students must retake the test and improve their scores in order to graduate this year.
High-stakes standardized tests, which determine whether a student can move up a year or graduate, have been used to hold schools accountable for student performance since 1965, when state achievement tests became mandatory for schools to receive federal funding. More recently, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 required schools to meet Adequate Yearly Progress goals or face the consequences: required restructuring of their curriculum, implementation of new tutoring and after-school programs, and loss of students to charter and other schools.
Rhode Island has used the New England Common Assessment Program as a state achievement test since 2005, in response to No Child Left Behind’s encouragement of state assessments. The original discussion of making the test a graduation requirement emerged in 2008; the Rhode Island Board of Regents, which was replaced by the newly-created Board of Education this year, originally approved the plan.
Gist’s endorsement of high-stakes testing earned her high disapproval ratings among teachers and opposition from the state House and Senate, as well as Providence mayor Angel Taveras. No stranger to extreme measures to improve schools, Taveras laid off all the city’s almost 2,000 teachers two years ago in order to avoid having to choose which ones to fire by a pre-set deadline. In an open letter to Mancuso, Taveras expressed his “deep commitment to improving student achievement,” but said, “I worry that state leaders have imposed a graduation requirement on our students that is tied to a questionable measure of individual proficiency and graduation readiness.” Then, this spring the new Board of Education approved the measure.
Cauldierre McKay, a student at Classical High School and a member of PSU, called out Commissioner Gist in a “State of the Student” speech last spring. “She has chosen to point a finger at us with the NECAP graduation requirement.”
THE FIGHT WAS NOT OVER. The Rhode Island branch of the American Civil Liberties Union has been a critic of high-stakes testing since this issue emerged five years ago. In June, they joined 16 other advocacy groups to file a petition to end the testing requirement. State law required the board to respond to such petitions, either reopening the debate or rejecting the petition’s request. When the Board of Education ignored the petition, the ACLU filed a lawsuit demanding that they respond to it. In response, the board announced that their decision-making would occur in a closed session at a private retreat in August, so the ACLU filed another lawsuit on the grounds that this process violated open meeting laws. The board held a meeting where it announced that its members would debate the petition, but, ACLU Executive Director Steven Brown told the Independent, viewers were “somewhat shocked”: when the board went into a closed room to make their decision, rejecting the petition 6–5. That meeting, held in early September, led the ACLU to file its third and most recent injunction last week, again on the grounds that the Board of Education violated open meeting laws.
Brown says he sees the whole system of high-stakes standardized testing as flawed. At the deepest level, “We’re concerned about the impact that testing has on the most vulnerable populations—racial minorities, students with disabilities, and English language learners.”
Critics argue that the NECAP was designed as an evaluator of school performance and cannot simply be used to judge students individually—in fact, the company that designed the test has said in the past that it should not be used as a graduation requirement. Critics argue that introducing a standard like this, which uses a single test taken on a single day, overlooks the years of influence that determine students’ level of preparedness.
Some NECAP opponents aren’t categorically against all high-stakes tests. As Tom Sgouros, an engineer and policy analyst said in a March 14 open letter opposing the NECAP on the website RIFuture.org, “There is nothing wrong with ‘teaching to the test’ when the test is part of a well-designed and interesting curriculum.” Rather, he and others point out that the NECAP is badly designed to evaluate the performance of an individual, as it was designed to measure schools rather than individuals’ aptitude. Even Brown said that the NECAP has its uses, as an evaluator of schools’ performance in the areas where they are not educating students fully.
“The state assessment…is not the be-all, end-all,” Mancuso wrote in a Providence Journal editorial early this month. “But it is one valid measure that shows us that too many students, despite whatever grades they may earn in their coursework, have not attained the knowledge and skills they will need upon graduation.” Supporters of high-stakes testing point to the fact that students who fail the exam in their junior year can take it again their senior year and only need to show “significant improvement”—they do not necessarily need to score a certain level to be allowed to graduate. Furthermore, students can appeal “any decision throughout the process,” Department of Education spokesman Elliot Krieger told GoLocalProv.
But such appeals processes naturally privilege students who are more engaged in the bureaucracy or who have the support of engaged parents. Many other students do not understand the complexities of the state’s education apparatus. The biggest concern may not be that they do not have the opportunity to pass the test but that they are discouraged from even trying after one or more failures.
“If I don’t pass it the first time, what can I do to pass it the second time?” Samantha Gobin, an honor roll student at Coventry High School who risks not graduating because she could not pass the math portion of the test, asked GoLocalProv last spring. “Is it going to be the same test? We don’t know. I’ve been stressing about it. They had to know that kids weren’t going to pass it. For two years now, they decided that my class was going to have to have it as a graduation requirement and so far we have no solution.”
THE NECAP IS CERTAINLY NOT the final step in education reform. In just a few years, Rhode Island plans to revamp its whole testing strategy to better comply with the Common Core State Standards Initiative—a set of standards approved by the National Governors Association and based around the goals of strengthening accountability for schools and students—adopting the same test that is in the process of being adopted in 44 other states. At that time, NECAP will no longer be an issue, but the question of high stakes testing will remain. The new test, the PARCC, “will just raise its own host of issues,” Brown said. It will be computerized and therefore, he argues, privilege students with more access to such technology. And the new test will still be guilty of using “a single test to determine a student’s twelve years of schooling.”
For this year’s seniors, the fight is not over, but it’s getting there. The ACLU’s third lawsuit still waits to be heard, but judging by the Board of Education’s prior decisions and statements made by Gist and Marcuso, it seems unlikely they will change their minds.
“This just means we have to fight harder,” McKay wrote on PSU’s blog earlier this month, after education policy-makers once again refused to hear him and his fellow students speak. “We will be back. And we’ll be back with some escalators because we are escalating. Game time is over.”
EMMA WOHL B’14 is E. All of the above.