School administrators address disappointing RICAS results

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The results of the Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System (RICAS) standardized tests are in, and scores show that Johnston students in grades 3 through 8 fall behind their Massachusetts counterparts in English language arts (ELA) and math.

According to the Rhode Island Department of Education, RICAS is the Rhode Island administration of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) test, the assessment tool of the nation’s highest-performing state for public education.

Students in Rhode Island take the RICAS assessments over a number of days or weeks, and Johnston students took the exam in the spring. Depending on the grade level, the test may take up to six hours to complete.

The 2017-2018 school year was the first year the RICAS was implemented, which RIDE states was a change that was met with support from educators for its high standards, sustainability, aligned instructional resources, and shorter testing time. The integration of RICAS completes Rhode Island’s transition away from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test.  RICAS is considered a more rigorous assessment than the PARCC test.

Student performance is summarized through one of four performance levels. The levels are exceeded expectations, met expectations, partially met expectations, and did not meet expectations. The goal of the testing is to attain a measure of student progress to help inform instruction.

Johnston’s results in ELA found that 27.55 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 were proficient in 2018, compared to 31.1 percent in 2017 under the former PARCC test. The district’s results in math revealed that 23.3 percent of students were proficient in math, compared to 25.1 percent in 2017.

Broken down by school, 62.59 percent of Brown Avenue students were proficient in ELA compared to 56.5 percent in 2017, while 54.68 percent were proficient in math compared to 60.3 percent in 2017.

At Sarah Dyer Barnes, 43.97 percent were proficient in ELA this year versus 38.7 percent last year. In math, 31.33 percent were proficient this year compared to 34.6 percent last year.

Over at Thornton, 28.22 percent of students showed they were proficient in ELA compared to 29.1 percent in 2017. For math, 28.22 percent of students at the school showed proficiency in 2018 versus 28.6 percent in 2017.

For ELA at Winsor Hill, 27 percent of students were proficient in 2018 compared to 30 percent in 2017. There was a big drop in math scores, where 15.13 percent of students were proficient in 2018 compared to 25.7 percent last year.

At the middle school level, the test found that 17.86 percent of Ferri students were proficient in ELA, while 32.3 percent were deemed proficient in 2017. For math, 16.67 percent of students were proficient in 2018, down from 20.4 percent last year.

Following the release of the test scores, Superintendent Dr. Bernard DiLullo Jr. and Assistant Superintendent Julie-anne Zarrella sat down with the Sun Rise to provide their thoughts on the results and what they mean for Johnston’s students.

“As you can see, we’ve got varying results with different schools. Julie and I are in the process of looking at their individual data to see where the commonalities are in terms of what’s missing,” said DiLullo. “We’re looking at what other professional development we can provide. We’re identifying math as a weak area for the district.”

DiLullo said that the district is contracting with Math Solutions, an organization that seeks to improve students’ learning of mathematics by providing educators with professional learning services and resources. Representatives have conducted walkthroughs of the town’s classrooms, conducted surveys with teachers, provided feedback on areas they found needed improvement and throughout the next year will conduct coaching sessions.

“It’s vetted, professional development in the classroom working on specific strategies, building conceptual understanding of mathematics for students to be able to make those connections,” said Zarrella.

A math coach for the district has also been hired for grades kindergarten to 12. Jean Picano, a former Johnston High School teacher with more than 30 years experience in teaching math and who retired last year, will serve in the role.

“Our thinking is that she will be able to bridge each grade level, with the end result in mind regarding the high school math levels that need to be addressed,” said DiLullo. “Her expertise really is in conceptual math, so she’ll be able to train our elementary school teachers on understanding not only the mechanics of math but also the concepts of math and that’s important when you get to that higher level math thinking and course.”

Zarrella added that Picano is working on the vertical articulation with the Algebra 1 program at Ferri. She said there have been curriculum meetings set up that will continue. The goal is to meet standards set by the state.

“I can’t blame the standards for the lower scores, but one of the things that we in Rhode Island face that Massachusetts hasn’t is we’ve had a number of changes in the standards we’re using. Massachusetts stayed with their curriculum frameworks for an extended period of time – over 20 years – and they kept with the same test for the same amount of time,” said DiLullo. “The other thing that Massachusetts did was to make the MCAS a high stakes test that students in high school had to mass the MCAS in order to graduate.”

DiLullo said that Rhode Island has changed standards and testing many times during the past 20 years, and each time there’s a change it requires teachers to be retrained. Those changes and retraining take time to implement and learn.

“As far as teaching towards the test, all of those standards have to be addressed in those classes,” said DiLullo. “Our teachers are working hard every day, for them to keep learning new standards, new expectations, new programs, you’re not an expert until you’ve understood that fully before you can then teach somebody else what the expectation is.”

Zarrella has been focused on the curriculum development of the district to align with state standards. She’s integrated software programs to map what is being taught in each classroom. She said the district would then be able to diagnose which standards are being met and where weak areas may be. That technology will also be used to create personalized and individualized learning plans for students.

“There’s a lot in place right now. Hopefully, we’re going to see better results moving forward,” said Zarrella.

Both DiLullo and Zarrella felt that the town is investing appropriately in education for its youngest students, though he felt that the schools could work smarter and use those supports better.

“I think the town supports our schools, I do. They provide a lot of services that we would otherwise have to pay for ourselves. Miraculously, we’ve been able to do with what we have in terms of spending,” said DiLullo. “We’ve been able to provide a lot of support for our students with the one-to-one program where every child has a computer. We’ve been able to purchase instructional materials. We certainly have well staffed schools to the point where we have interventionists in buildings.”

One of the superintendent’s hopes is that the next time the district takes the test it will include students who were part of the first all-day kindergarten program. Those students will soon be entering the third grade. Zarrella also felt that the leadership at the elementary schools and middle school will work towards better results.

“I think everyone needs to be more reflective in their practice, both teachers and building leaders,” she said.

DiLullo said that, across the state, educators were disappointed in the results. In an effort to maintain transparency and keep parents informed, a presentation will be given to the School Committee on December 11. Each school will also hold a report night and invite parents into the building to discuss results and answer questions. He said that this test shows room for improvement.

“Overall, I would grade the district with a ‘C’ on this test,” said DiLullo. “However, when you get a ‘C’ you can always do better.”

Janice Mele, chair of the Johnston School Committee, agreed with the superintendent’s assessment that the state has cycled through multiple standardized tests which has led to a zig-zag approach towards education while Massachusetts has remained consistent for 20 years.

“We’ve already started working on the math issue, and we’re addressing the reading issues as well,” said Mele.

Mele said she was sure that the leadership team in place for the district are well qualified to meet the challenges the test has revealed.

“My superintendent, Dr. DiLullo, we’re lucky to have him. His leadership is phenomenal and he’s already on it,” said Mele. “He’s been working on this and it’s been phenomenal. I think by next year we will have increased test scores because he just takes the reigns and goes with it.”

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