Rhode Island

Rhode Island is Getting Smarter (and More Like Mass)

Rhode Island is making a big change in how it assesses students that will bring us in line with Massachusetts in grades 3-8 and reduce testing time by 50 percent at the high school level. PARCC will no longer be the test we administer in Rhode Island so while the teaching standards will remain the same, the assessments we use to measure growth, student proficiency, and college readiness will change.

We will use the same test as Massachusetts—MCAS (although we will call it RICAS to stand for Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System) in grades 3 through 8 and then the PSAT and SAT will be mandatory for our high schoolers. Not only will this ensure that all students clear the hurdle of taking the PSAT and SAT (a requirement at most post secondary institutions) but it will allow us to see how our students are doing compared to districts in our own state but also a multitude of other states including Massachusetts and Connecticut. In many ways, the shift to the SAT fits perfectly into the priorities we have seen the Governor and the Commissioner lay out in their opportunity agenda that focuses on equity of access and college readiness.

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Slow and Steady Wins the Race

Lots of people in education reform talk about disruption and urgency and the need to drive change as quickly as possible but experience shows that steady, incremental change not only builds support among all stakeholders but is more likely to get results. So credit goes to Governor Gina Raimondo and State Education Chief Ken Wagner for implementing a thoughtful, well-paced series of changes that hold out real promise. Over time, Rhode Island could match its high-performing neighbor to the north and be a national leader.

Massachusetts moved away from using PARCC by itself and created a hybrid test that incorporated the best of PARCC and the best of MCAS. They call it MCAS 2.0. Many (myself included) have been clamoring for Rhode Island to follow Massachusetts’ lead and partnering with them on testing is absolutely a good thing for kids. It will once again allow us to compare ourselves in an apples to apples way with the neighboring Baystate which, year after year, ranks #1 in education while RI consistently finds itself in the middle of the pack in student performance despite almost identical spending.

The first year of PARCC testing, before Massachusetts decided to move to a hybrid test, they outperformed us by 40 percent. In fact, the city of Boston alone outperformed us as a state. High schoolers did especially poorly on PARCC and some have asserted that the lackluster showing was a result of kids essentially blowing off the test since it didn’t have any bearing on their ability to graduate. It’s less likely that students will blow off the PSAT/SAT since, for most, it is a test that will impact their future options. Most colleges and universities require it and at some schools, it is part of the initial sorting process in which they decide who will and won’t be accepted.

While some educators have made the claim that PARCC is “too hard” for our kids, I reject that — as do most educators I know. A veteran reading teacher of 27 years admitted to being “furious” the first year of the PARCC test because of how hard the questions were, only to admit two years later that her students had proven her wrong. She acknowledged that her expectations had been too low. And personally as a mom of three, I have never understood the intense opposition to PARCC. My kids have taken it five times total between them and the only complaint I’ve heard from them is that it’s “kinda long.” But MCAS 2.0 didn’t exist when we adopted PARCC and now it does. And it’s shorter.

All states have either just finished or are still in the process of of drafting their state plans for the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal education law that replaced No Child Left Behind. Rhode Island is still drafting theirs and it makes sense that they’d be updating their assessments during this process.

And the People Say

Initial reactions from stakeholders are positive from union leadership and the president of the Board of Education to the students who will personally be impacted.

From a student perspective, I think this is the right choice and the right direction for our state. This will mean less time spent testing at both the elementary and secondary levels. At the high school level, it removes the stress of preparation for two standardized tests. Using a test that students will need for higher education that also provides our state’s education system with valuable information is a win for all,” said Colby Anderson, chairperson of the Rhode Island Student Advisory Council and a senior at East Greenwich High School. (Press Release April 14, 2017)

I see this shift as one in a series of steps to continue to raise the bar here in the Ocean State and get to a place where we can compete with the best state in the country when it comes to educating our children. From changes in early childhood education to advanced coursework and early college work to our new tiered diploma system, we are in the midst of a multi-pronged effort to set our students up for future success. We still won’t have an exit exam like Massachusetts does. And I wish we would. But putting that aside, this assessment shift makes sense. 

We are ensuring that all students, regardless of their ability to pay or their parents’ educational background, take the PSAT and the SAT. There is a proposal out of the Governor’s office to increase access to our public colleges and universities by providing two years of free tuition to every student. Support for that plan is currently at 60 percent among voters. And now, we are partnering with the state that took reform of both standards and testing seriously twenty years ago and chose not to blink.

Rhode Island blinked. And blinked again.

We can’t afford to blink again. Seventy percent of the jobs our students will encounter are going to require at least some post-secondary education. Currently, only 40 percent of working age people in our state have that. So in addition to the importance of listening to key stakeholders and partnering with Massachusetts, our economy needs us to get this right in a sustainable and predictable way.

Rhode Island, we are on our way to doing education smarter and better.

 

What do you think?

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