Johnston RICAS scores plummet; pandemic illustrates attendance is key

Johnston Schools Superintendent Dr. Bernard DiLullo Jr.: “I think the summation of the RICAS scores this year is that students learn best in the classroom."


Johnston Schools’ 2021 Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System (RICAS) test results reveal concerning deficits, especially in mathematics, as students and staff emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think the summation of the RICAS scores this year is that students learn best in the classroom,” said Johnston Schools Superintendent Dr. Bernard DiLullo Jr. “Teachers teach best in the classroom, when all their resources are available to them. All of the services that we provide need to be provided in school.”

Scores for students at two district schools in particular, Winsor Hill School and Nicholas A. Ferri Middle School, indicate less than 10 percent of pupils are “Meeting or Exceeding Expectations” in math.

Only 7.9% of students at Winsor Hill are meeting or exceeding expectations in math, and 9.1% at Ferri Middle School.

The RICAS exam is administered to students from Grades 3 through 8, in elementary and middle schools throughout the state.

“It was not administered in 2020 when the federal government waived standardized testing requirements due to COVID-19, making these results the first Rhode Island statewide assessment revealing the effects of the pandemic on student learning,” according to a press release from Gov. Dan McKee’s office.

DiLullo and three of his top administrators – Edda Carmadello, Director of Special Services, Cathy Fox, Coordinator for Multi-lingual Learners (MLL), and Julie-anne Zarrella, Assistant Superintendent/Curriculum Director – met to discuss the district’s RICAS results with the Johnston Sun Rise.

The district is in the process of submitting plans to apply for federal funds aimed at bolstering student support services.

“Those funds are earmarked for student achievement,” DiLullo said. “So what you’re able to do is hire intervention teachers who can work in addition to the classroom teacher; social/emotional support, such as clinicians, psychologists, social workers; additional MLL teachers for extra support for those students; additional special educators to provide tutoring and ongoing support for special education teachers. Those are the plans that we’re working with at this point.”

“There’s also school improvement plans as well, that mirror the district’s improvement plan,” Zarrella added.

“There’s also a program that the Department of Education is offering districts who were hit hard by COVID, it’s called the LEAP Initiative,” DiLullo explained. “There’s matching funds available to districts to provide supportive services around identifying goals, with the outcome being higher achievement for all students.”

Johnston qualifies for the program.

“It’s pretty much the urban and the urban ring districts that qualify,” DiLullo said.

According to the Rhode Island Department of Health, Johnston still ranks third in the state for overall cases of COVID-19, hospitalizations and resulting deaths, when broken down on “per 100,000” population ratios.

“It’s unprecedented times on many, many levels,” Zarella said. “It is not the profession I entered 31 years ago. It is far different. The demands have increased, even though the basics of what we do on a daily basis have changed quite significantly, but the stakes keep getting higher and higher. And so you’ve got to keep up.”

Although the percentages of students whose test results indicate they are “meeting and exceeding expectations” have fallen dramatically, so did the number of students who took last year’s test.

The lower number of test-takers has translated into far lower numbers meeting and exceeding expectations. And in some cases, high-performing schools have experienced the highest drops in testing outcomes.

“And we’re also seeing how important attendance is on a daily basis for all of our students,” DiLullo said. “I think what we saw last year around testing is kind of an outlier, because it wasn’t the same school experience kids are used to; kids and teachers are used to.”

Many parents decided to keep their children home last year, opting for the distance-learning option over in-class instruction.

“We offered testing to everybody,” DiLullo said. “The students who were distance learning students last year, we actually provided a space for them to come into the schools and be tested, so they wouldn’t be integrated into the classrooms. But obviously if the families have chosen for them to be distance learners, then in fact they don’t want them coming into the schools.”

Few families took the district up on the offer.

“That’s the bulk of the kids who weren’t tested,” DiLullo explained. “You saw us go down from 90-something percent to the upper 80s. So when you have your students all sitting in front of you, and the test is required, they have to take that test. You have 98 percent of students taking the test.”

District-wide, the number of students taking the test plummeted from 98.9 percent in 2018-19 to 82.3 percent in 2020-21.

According to a press release from McKee’s office, “student participation decreased by 10 percentage points in both Mathematics and ELA compared to 2019 levels.”

McKee’s office also notes “the most severe drops in participation occurred among students who were either economically disadvantaged or homeless.”

While comparing test results from the last two years offers some insight into learning gaps, it’s far from an apple-to-apple comparison.

“What we are looking at here is a new baseline for our students, and by working together, we are going to be able to raise it,” McKee said. “We must take this opportunity to not only improve in the short term, but to look ahead to how we can build a stronger, more resilient education system over the coming decade. We are going to work with families and educators across the state to make sure every child gets the excellent education they deserve.”

Rhode Island Commissioner of Education Angélica Infante-Green called this year’s RICAS results a “clear call to action.”

“Our students’ learning was disrupted by COVID-19, and we must meet this moment by focusing our energy on the implementation of a strategic, unified plan to meet their needs,” she said, in a press release. “Like communities across the country, we knew that our students were impacted by the pandemic, and we are deeply grateful to the educators, school leaders, and parents who have worked to keep them engaged.”

According to McKee’s office, “scores across the state were lower than in years past, with greater drops in scores in Mathematics this year than there were in ELA.”

“Overall, the percentage of students meeting or exceeding expectations in ELA dropped 5 percentage points, from 38.38% in 2019 to 33.19% in 2021, while the percentage of students meeting or exceeding expectations in Mathematics dropped 10 percentage points, from 29.79% in 2019 to 20.07% in 2021,” according to a press release. “These drops were seen in Rhode Island and nationwide in all student groups regardless of grade level, demographic, race, ethnicity or multilingualism.”

The Johnston School District, however, suffered more significant drops than the statewide average. While Johnston’s scores followed statewide averages in ELL, the town’s math scores fell drastically, from 25.2% of students meeting or exceeding expectations in all Johnston schools in 2018-19, to just 11.9% in 2020-21.

Statewide and district results can be viewed online at

Johnston students “Meeting or Exceeding Expectations”

All Schools:

English Language Arts/Literacy

2018-19                36.1%

2020-21                29.9%


2018-19                25.2%

2020-21                11.9%

Brown Avenue School

English Language Arts/Literacy

2018-19                56.3%

2020-21                36%


2018-19                54.8%

2020-21                21.4%

Sarah Dyer Barnes School

English Language Arts/Literacy

2018-19                42.4%

2020-21                31.3%


2018-19                29.9%

2020-21                17.1%

Thornton School

English Language Arts/Literacy

2018-19                31.5%

2020-21                30.3%


2018-19                29%

2020-21                15.1%

Winsor Hill School

English Language Arts/Literacy

2018-19                35%

2020-21                32.5%


2018-19                28.4%

2020-21                7.9%

Nicholas A. Ferri Middle School

English Language Arts/Literacy

2018-19                33.5%

2020-21                27.4%


2018-19                17.7%

2020-21                9.1%

Statewide (All Schools)

English Language Arts/Literacy

2018-19                38.5%

2020-21                33.2%


2018-19                29.8%

2020-21                20.1%

SOURCE: Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE)


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