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Group protests high stakes test
Says nearly half of Johnston juniors at risk to not graduate
Sun Rise photos by John Howell
A coalition supporting the elimination of high stakes tests rallies outside Warwick's Pilgrim High School on Tuesday, claiming that 4,200 Rhode Island juniors are at risk of not graduating high school.

Based on the scores from the NECAP tests taken in October, a coalition supporting the elimination of high stakes tests predicted Tuesday that nearly one in two Johnston juniors – 47 percent – are at risk of not receiving a high school diploma come graduation in 2014.

Statewide, the group estimates two in five juniors, a total of 4,200 are in jeopardy of not graduating.

Gathered outside Pilgrim High School in Warwick, chosen because it is not an inner-city school, the group staged a press conference as buses and parents arrived in anticipation of the school closing. The group’s aim was to bring attention to a “crisis” – thought to be only a problem in Providence and other inner-city schools – and to focus attention on legislation introduced by Warwick Representative Eileen Naughton to eliminate high stakes testing to determine access to a diploma. The bill was slated to come before the House Health, Education and Welfare Committee yesterday, after the Sun Rise deadline.

“The news of these scores across Rhode Island is sad. It is very scary for students, parents and our society, but it is not at all surprising,” said Rick Richards, a retired employee of the Rhode Island Department of Education’s (RIDE) Offices of Testing, School Improvement and School Transformation. “With 40 percent of the 11th graders in danger of not graduating, every parent in this state has to know that this way of determining graduation can put their child in danger. And, as parents think this over, they should realize that, in a very real sense, this is a crisis manufactured by policy makers at RIDE.”

The coalition includes the Rhode Island ACLU, RI Legal Services, Young Voices and the RI Disability Law Center, Providence Student Union, and Children’s Policy Coalition, among others. Noticeably absent were any representatives from city and town school committees and school administrations.

“They ought to be concerned,” Steve Brown of the RIACLU said. “They’re faced with a big problem.”

Zachary Farrell, the assistant principal at Johnston High School, says the administrators and teachers there are concerned. They fear that a single exam is not the best way to measure student performance.

“It’s a one-day test so it’s a narrow litmus test. It may not produce as great a barometer for students who don’t test well or may have special needs. They might just have a bad day,” Farrell said. “It’s a limited prism to gauge student achievement from.”

Deborah Gist, commissioner of education, concurs there is a problem, and in particular with the math scores on the NECAP tests. But she doesn’t believe NECAP is a high stakes test that determines whether a student will graduate. She said the system provides opportunities for students to meet minimum benchmarks and if they are able to achieve that growth, to make their diploma and graduate with their class.

She agrees more than 4,000 high school juniors statewide are in jeopardy of not receiving a diploma, largely because of their math skills.

“We do have students who don’t have fundamental math scores,” she said. Gist added that graduates “are going to need at least this level of skill” in order to advance their education or obtain jobs.

Gist believes the leadership in the House and Senate “sees this not as a testing problem, but a math problem.”

However, if the legislation passes, she added, “I think it would put us back many years.”

“RIDE adopted a graduation policy based in political ideology, not evidence. Unfortunately, RIDE’s decision to adapt an unproven policy puts the class of 2014 center stage in an experiment that will, in many, many cases, be life changing.  And, in all too many cases, this experiment will be devastating,” said Richards.

Asked what he would suggest if test scores were not to be used in determining graduation, Richards said he would favor creating a “value added diploma” where a student’s ability in a given field – nursing was the example he gave – would be noted. He also said he would work to make sure school assessments are accurate and that the approach to determining whether a student is ready to graduate should be holistic.

“RIDE’s policy is creating an entirely new category of adults who, due to an arbitrary score on a test, will not have a high school diploma with which to get a job or continue on in their higher education. Sadly, many will be forced to carry this stigma undeserved,” Richards said.

The result, Farrell said yesterday, is that students are under a great deal of pressure, and are fully aware that passing the NECAP is crucial.

“The sense of anxiety is felt by the students and the teachers just because of the high stakes nature of the test,” he said.

Farrell adds that the students earning a 1 or 2 on the NECAP test do not fit into a specific category, either. They are not necessarily students who do not do well in school.

“A student could be in an honors course and get a 1 on the NECAP,” he said.

Other students do face disabilities, though, which can impact their performance on the test.

“Unlike RIDE, we do not believe Rhode Island’s education system has failed 40 percent of its students. This is about students who, for example, have particular learning disabilities or anxieties that prevent them from performing adequately on the test,” Brown said. “More importantly, it is about denying diplomas to students using a test never meant to be used in this way. The thought of the fate that awaits many of these students is unfathomable.”

If the system does not change, Brown fears that this single test could change the course of students lives and “prevent them from showing their true potential.”

Gist sees the community responding to the issue faced by so many junior high school students.

In the more than three years she has been in Rhode Island, she said she has not seen the same level of concern.

“I’m seeing a very serious effort to rally around our students and that’s the kind of reaction we need,” she said.

With reports from Meg Fraser.

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