In April 2017 Rhode Island leaders in government and education came together to form a rare united front in support of the bold decision to adopt the same statewide test that Massachusetts uses for its annual testing. They called it MCAS; we would call it RICAS. Superintendents, school committees, union leaders, legislative leaders and even the governor—all of whom are aware of our proximity to the highest performing state in the country—were on board with the decision and now, a year and a half later, the moment of truth has arrived.
One important difference worth noting between Rhode Island and Massachusetts testing profiles is that we RI decided to use RICAS for grades 3-8 and the PSAT/SAT at the high school level. Massachusetts uses MCAS through 10th grade and students must pass it in order to graduate. Rhode Island still has no test requirement for high school graduation.
Before I get to the bad news, it’s important to note some of the better news. We have seen a lowering of the temperature around state testing and the opt-out movement is essentially a thing of the past here in Little Rhody. Participation is up 10 percent with 98 percent of students sitting for the first round of RICAS and that is good news.
When we look at the state averages (see figure above), Rhode Island scored 17 percentage points lower than Massachusetts in English Language Arts (ELA) and 20 percentage points lower in mathematics. Not a single Rhode Island district scored within the top 10 percent of Massachusetts communities, further evidence that even our “top” districts aren’t actually top districts once we look at them next to high performing districts outside our state.
(Click here to view proficiency rates by school.)
Show Me the Money…Or Don’t?
Despite the pervasive narrative that student outcomes are directly correlated with and reliant on per pupil spending, this round of testing blows that theory right out of the water. We saw Lincoln, ranked 12th for per pupil spending get crushed by neighboring Cumberland, ranked 53rd for spending. And Blackstone Valley Prep, ranked dead last for spending (62nd out of 62), outperformed state averages by double digits. Newport and Central Falls further drive the money point home and RI School for the Deaf, that spends an uncanny $106,000 per student, is quite literally so low performing that it’s proficiency numbers are labeled with an asterisk with fewer than 5 percent of its student met or exceeded expectations.
Fewer than 5 percent. And they are not the only school to be identified by asterisks.
One thing is clear: money is far from a panacea no matter how loudly people stomp their feet and proclaim that it is. (Click here to see list of per pupil spending for ever district and charter school in the state.)
But Those Kids Can’t Learn
The belief gap may exist in the minds of many but the evidence that students of color can knock it out of the park came through loud and clear on RICAS. The highest performing school in ELA AND math in the entire state was Achievement First Iluminar, a school where 97 percent of the students are nonwhite and 72 percent are from low income families. They outperformed the highest performing schools in Barrington, East Greenwich, and Block Island with 80 percent of their students meeting or exceeding expectations in ELA. It might be a good time to remember the controversy over the Achievement First expansion since, as WPRI’s Dan McGowan rightly points out, “something is working in those classrooms.”
But despite the strong showing of low income students at a few schools around the state, overall the gaps are reason for major concern. In ELA, RI’s non-low income students outperform their low income counterparts by a whopping 29.7 points. In math, that gap shrinks slightly to 27.3 points though that might actually be explained by the overall low achievement in math for all students with Barrington topping out at 60.6% proficient in math district-wide and East Greenwich at 53.43.
Districts with large differences in income level school to school continue to see striking gaps in student performance. In looking at 5th grade math—since that has been a focus for the state because of our struggles with fractions—Cranston shows huge swings. While the Stadium School has 42.1 of its 5th graders either meeting or exceeding expectations in math, the Eden Park School only has 9.26 percent meeting or exceeding expectations.
Nathan Bishop Middle School on the East Side of Providence—with 76 percent of students eligible for free/reduced lunch—also tells a grim tale. After a $35 million renovation, 87 percent of their students essentially failed the ELA exam and half of those students scored a 1, which means they are not even “partially meeting expectations.”
Charters Are No Magic Bullet
Despite the tendency of many here in Rhode Island and nationally to speak of charter schools as some sort of monolith, the RICAS results are further proof that they are anything but that. While it’s exciting and worthy of celebration that some of the highest performing schools in the state are charter schools, the brutal truth is that some of the lowest performing schools are charters too. Kingston Hill Academy, Achievement First, Blackstone Valley Prep, and the Learning Community all outperformed state averages while Highlander Charter School and Trinity Academy for the Performing Arts (TAPA) fared terribly.
Gender Gap Persists
While the math scores are only a point apart for boys and girls—with boys leading by one point— the gap in reading and writing persists, with girls outperforming boys by 12.3 percentage points. Seems to me that if we are going to pay special attention to girls in STEM, we might want to work harder to figure out what is going on with our boys in reading and writing and provide supports to help turn the tide.
If there is one lesson we have learned from watching Massachusetts choose a long term strategy and stick to it for twenty years, it is that we in the Ocean State have repeatedly compromised our way to mediocrity and even failure. Rather than show courage and work to replicate Massachusetts’ success, Rhode Island leaders—largely because of pressure from special interests—have shown weakness. And blinked.
We will never get to where we need to be without a shared vision and a commitment to stay the course. The 20 years of work in Massachusetts have not been easy; political courage was required every step of the way. But look where Massachusetts ended up—they are a national leader in K-12 education. We are lucky to have them right next door and willing to collaborate with us and advise us.
But they can’t do it for us. The work is ours. The question is, are we finally ready—and willing—to do it?