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.
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.”
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.”
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.”