Tests aren’t everything. But they aren’t nothing either. And with the results of our first round of PARCC testing now public, Rhode Islanders would be wise to fight our natural urge to dismiss test scores and poo poo comparisons to neighboring states. Instead, we should boldly ask ourselves the hard question: Why is the state next door performing so much better than we are on the exact same test?
40% better to be exact.
Looking at statewide numbers, Massachusetts didn’t just beat us. They pretty much crushed us. And though there are some bright spots in a few of our districts and charter schools, the elephant in the room is that there is no more time to argue about expectations; we have to maintain the higher bar now put in place and commit to doing whatever it takes to ensure that our kids have the skills and knowledge they need.
So, what does PARCC tell us?
Rhode Island’s results show that only 36% of students in grades 3-10 are proficient in English (Also referred to as ELA/Literacy) while Massachusetts’ boasts a proficiency rate of 60 percent. In mathematics, Rhode Island’s proficiency rate is 25 percent while in Massachusetts it is 52 percent.
These are not insignificant differences and that should give us pause.
The hard truth is that a state right next door has outperformed us by more than 20 points in both subject areas. The even harder truth, perhaps, is that the city of Boston alone outperformed the entire state of Rhode Island. But the state right next door to us also had the political will twenty years ago to put higher standards in place and require a high school exit exam. Unions, community groups, parents certainly fought it but now, in 2015, they have a 90% pass rate and are considered to be the gold standard in K-12 education.
The default response for many will likely be about funding but the painful truth is that Rhode Island, like MA, is a high spending state. In a 2014 report cited in USA Today, states were ranked according to what they spend on education; Massachusetts came in at #6 with Rhode Island following right behind at #7. The difference in the average per pupil expenditure is a mere $137 and yet somehow, our student outcomes are alarmingly disparate.
Some will likely say that the results must be bad because our urban core is dragging down the numbers. But again, comparisons between similar towns from each state still show double digit disparities in math and ELA. Barrington, Rhode Island and Belmont, MA, for example, both have a median income of approximately $106,000 yet their PARCC scores have very little in common. Belmont students are 81 percent proficient in math and 89 percent proficient in English. Barrington, by contrast, is 57 percent proficient in math and 71 percent proficient in English. Would Barrington parents be surprised to know this?
In comparing our capital cities, the situation is predictably more dire. In Providence, only 10 percent of students are considered proficient in math compared to Boston with 34 percent. (And if that doesn’t give you pause, our statewide proficiency for high school students of just 6.7 percent certainly should.) In ELA, 18 percent of Providence students are proficient while in Boston, that number is more than twice as high at 39 percent.
Anecdotally, having attended school in MA, taught in schools in both states, and now raising three kids in Rhode Island, I can say without hesitation that the expectations and culture around education are palpably different in the two states. And the frustrating truth is, if I drive 5 minutes north or west from my home, I move from the 29th highest performing state in the nation to the top performing state in the nation. Despite Rhode Island’s history of complacency around its educational under-performance, every metric tells us that this is a major red flag not only for the future opportunities for our children but also for the state economy as a whole.
It is natural to make the claim that test scores don’t tell the whole story. Because they don’t. But we can’t talk about the importance of multiple measures and then pretend that one of the measures is meaningless or somehow doesn’t matter. Just as teacher feedback and report card grades matter, so too do objective measures, especially when they can be compared across state lines.
My superintendent when I was a teacher in Massachusetts used to say, “if there’s a problem, let’s hang a sign on it.” It’s high time we hang a sign on the fact that we as Rhode Islanders can no longer lag so far behind a state that is just a stone’s throw away. Our children need and deserve to be just as well prepared as their peers in the Bay State when it comes time to apply to college, serve their country, and compete for jobs.
In the words of Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo as she reacted to her state’s PARCC results,
“Our kids deserve better.”