Rhode Island

The Other 97 Percent, an Ugly Rhode Island Secret


When kids don’t graduate, it has lifelong consequences.


Those are the recent words of Rhode Island Education Commissioner Ken Wagner and there is no doubt that he is right. A high school diploma is widely accepted as the absolute bare minimum when it comes to educating students in 2016 and while most would say it is no longer sufficient to survive in the modern economy, everyone agrees it is an essential milestone.

Based on Commissioner Wagner’s recent comments, it seems pretty clear that the  lifelong consequences he references are the driving force behind his recent and controversial decision to drop passage of a standardized test from the high school graduation requirements.

And while I don’t agree with his decision, I can understand his rationale. He sees the requirement as punishing students for a poor test score when, in his words, “it is just as likely that they weren’t adequately prepared.

His argument is a persuasive one, especially since there is no doubt that Rhode Island, year after year, has not been adequately preparing its students. Not to pass a test. Not to enroll in college classes. Not to compete with kids from neighboring states. And not for a career.

I personally wish he’d stick with what Massachusetts has done but I certainly realize that he also answers to powerful constituencies who have no interest in Rhode Island moving towards a Massachusetts model, an inexcusable position considering their ranking of number one and our ranking of 28 when it comes to the quality of our state’s public schools.

Regardless of one’s view of the high school testing requirement, one fact is indisputable: Far too many of our students are graduating without the skills they need. And anyone who denies it has not studied the college remediation rates of Rhode Island graduates. In his first ever education address to the General Assembly this year, Commissioner Wagner said the following:


Too many of our students who enroll in college need remediation when they get there, and they end up paying college prices for what they should have learned in high school. By the year 2020, more than 70 percent of jobs in Rhode Island will require some form of post-secondary education. But less than half of Rhode Islanders meet that benchmark now.


While none of the numbers are encouraging, the most concerning remediation numbers relate to the students who enroll in 2 year programs at community colleges. Of those students, 74 percent of them are required to enroll in remedial courses their freshman year. Courses that offer zero college credit. Courses that are a repeat of high school. Courses that come with a hefty price tag.  And with graduation rates for these same students in this situation in the single digits, this is a crisis we can’t afford to ignore.

74 percent is a number that we simply can’t accept.

Black and Brown Lives


While the Black Lives Matter movement has mostly focused on systemic racism within the nation’s police departments, it is also imperative that we talk about Rhode Island’s black and brown lives as we look at educational data, including remediation data. We can’t ignore the inequity that plagues our state nor we can excuse it by pointing to the fact that it plagues other states as well. It is an American problem and a Rhode Island problem and the remediation numbers that follow are an urgent call to action.

When we look at college remediation data by race, the truth reveals itself to be downright insidious.

97 percent of African American students in Rhode Island who enroll in 2 year post graduate programs, including community college, are required to take remedial classes.

97 percent. It’s a gasp worthy number. It’s a hideous number. But it’s our number.

The number for Hispanic graduates, while a bit lower, is still gasp-worthy at 89 percent. These staggering statistics about our kids should have every educator, every elected official, every community leader in the state outraged and shouting from the rooftops that this cannot stand and that we are committed to fixing this. Now.

Our state knows how to talk the talk about education being a priority but it’s high time that we get all hands on deck and start walking the walk to show our Black and Latino students and their families that yes, they too deserve to graduate from high school prepared for college or whatever comes next.

And no matter how politically charged or difficult or outside our comfort zones getting there may be, we have an obligation to make it happen.



What do you think?

One thought on “The Other 97 Percent, an Ugly Rhode Island Secret

  1. Well a couple of points. It’s high in MA too – not as high, but still close to 70%.

    Second, look at the remedial *completion* rate – it’s horrible. So you have lack of success at both high school and community college – that suggests some deeper issues that maybe we can’t just blame on the public school system.

    Makes you wonder though about pushing the free community college – the remedial success and actual completions are not great..might be better to rethink preparation at the secondary school.

    I’m guessing kids who don’t show proficiency in 9/10 ELA / MATH had issues in middle school – why not have a MS graduation requirement (standardized assessment) – it’s really a greater bridge when they get to be 16-19 year olds.. hold up athletics and other participation..easier fight at 8th grade.

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