Rhode Island · School Talk

Students Speak Out to Shift the Narrative About Their School (but 93 percent of Students There Don’t Read at Grade Level)

Student voice matters and when middle school students decide they want to push back on the negative narrative surrounding their school, we need to listen. Half a dozen students and one alumnus of Roger Williams Middle School in Providence fielded questions last week as part of a panel discussion entitled “I am Roger Williams Middle School,” sponsored by Generation Citizen. They expressed frustration with the perception that their school is a dark and dangerous place and they wanted to set the record straight and dispel the rumors that it’s “full of gangs” and “teachers are checked out.”

Students shared that they were a bit scared to start middle school at RWMS because of what they’d heard but say there were pleasantly surprised when the reality didn’t match the perception. They reported feeling safe at school and shared anecdotes about dedicated teachers, robust athletic programs, and opportunities to participate in theatre.

Here’s some of what they had to say:

It’s not as bad as you think. You don’t judge a book by its cover. Come here and see what it’s all about.

One teacher stayed after school to help us prepare for the test to get into Classical High School.

If I could come back to Roger Williams, I would. This school changed me.

All of their reflections, observations, and experiences are important and absolutely make up a hugely important part of all that the school is. We should not dismiss or even diminish any of that. But there is a giant elephant in the room that no one seems to want to talk about.  While the students rightly made the claim that test scores shouldn’t define a school, they seemed to imply that the scores don’t matter. And based on some of the Twitter activity I’ve seen by local educators and advocates since the panel, this opinion about scores seems to be shared by some high-profile education leaders as well. Truth be told, I find that very concerning.

So how bad is it?

It’s this bad: 7 Percent of Roger Williams Middle School students read at grade level and 3 percent do math at grade level. Flip it around and that’s 93 percent of students who Do NOT read at grade level and 97 percent who do not do math at grade level. 

If we care about the futures of our students, these numbers tell the tale of an emergency. A crisis.

What kind of future awaits students who cannot read on level and cannot do basic math? For starters, students who don’t read at grade level by 3rd grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school. And while Governor Raimondo hasn’t said anything about Roger Williams Middle School specifically, she did draw a line in the sand on 3rd grade reading in 2016.

When I see that just over a third of our third graders are reading on grade level, I’m disappointed, frustrated and I’m impatient. Study after study shows that the number-one indicator of high school graduation and future success is a child’s ability to read on grade level by third grade.

If Governor Raimondo is this concerned over a proficiency rate of over 30 percent in third grade reading statewide, imagine how she must feel about a school where only 7 percent of students—who are well past third grade—can read at grade level.

I do not understand how education leaders, pundits, advocates and even teachers do not see this is a crisis. We can certainly celebrate a school and elevate student voice, as happened last week, while also being honest about the brutal truths around student achievement. And at Roger Williams Middle School, the house is on fire when it comes to reading and math. 

7 percent. 3 percent. How can this not be a clarion call? And Roger Williams isn’t the only school in the state with stunningly low proficiency rates but it is the school whose students were featured in the Providence Journal making the claim that test scores don’t show how smart they are and shouldn’t define their school. I happen to agree with both of those statements. But I reject any implication that state tests don’t provide crucial information about student readiness and in the case of Roger Williams Middle School, it is our job to ensure that students and their parents understand what is at stake when so few students can read at grade level.


The future of these children is at stake. Ignoring the elephant in the room doesn’t change that; it only makes things worse. So let’s start having the hard but necessary conversations about longer school days, longer school years, teacher quality, and potential summer initiatives and change the trajectory of these kids before it’s too late. The budget is obviously a very real impediment but it doesn’t mean we can’t begin to get much more honest about where we are and where we need to go.

The future of Roger Williams Middle School’s students—and so many other students— as well as the future of Rhode Island depend on us getting this much more right than we currently are.


Featured photo is courtesy of the Providence Journal. 



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