There is no hiding that too many of Rhode Island’s high schools, especially those in the Providence School System, are persistently low-performing. In the latest chapter of Rhode Island’s educational crisis, the Rhode Island Department of Education will implement a policy, effective this year, to tie high school juniors’ performances on the New England Common Assessment Program to obtaining a diploma. We find this to be a reprehensible and dangerous policy that fails to directly address the tougher problems facing the Rhode Island school system.
The state’s assessment of NECAP — a standardized test aimed to evaluate students’ academic achievement through a statewide standard — has not been promising. According to a report from the Department of Education, 23 percent of Providence high school juniors tested “substantially below proficient” in reading, and 45 percent had the same result in mathematics. This is an alarming and embarrassing statistic that warrants corrective action, but identifying the root causes of such educational inadequacies is difficult.
Department of Education Commissioner Deborah Gist has suggested drastic action that we believe does not address the problem. Gist’s new policy of mandating that students score at least “partially proficient” in the math and reading portions of the NECAP to graduate comes off as a zero-sum game: You either come out a winner, “equipped” with the skills to succeed in college or a job, or you come out a loser with only yourself to blame. Scoring “partially proficient” on the exam is not difficult in comparison to many other K-12 standardized tests and is a reasonable standard students and teachers should always strive to meet. But the implicit assumption that this policy will cure the deeper causes of Rhode Island’s educational troubles, without substantial effort to supplement it with a systematic overhaul, is absurd and offensive on multiple levels. Students cannot be expected to magically perform better on the NECAP because their futures are at risk, nor should teachers be expected to change their curricula so their students will be able to graduate.
In addition, the high number of students who would not graduate due to the policy, thus staying in their respective schools for at least an additional year, would exhaust the schools’ already meager resources designated for four-year students. By demanding that schools devote more precious resources, time and money to improving test scores, the Department of Education is implementing misguided reform. Even if test scores improve, such changes will not be because students were scared straight by the policy. Instead, it will be because teachers were forced to spend time preparing students for the NECAP rather than inspiring students and providing diversified and creative curricula. Just as the Open Curriculum would never condone reading the SparkNotes version of a classic, Rhode Island students should not forgo a true learning experience for the sake of improving their chances of graduation.
We appreciate the efforts to crack down on Rhode Island schools, but test scores are not the only measure of success and should not be seen as the first indication of such. Our high school experiences are not shaped by performance on standardized tests. Rather, they are shaped by our teachers, classes, activities and most importantly, our communities. Denying a diploma to students because of their inherent disadvantages is unfair, unnecessary and an act of betrayal by their schools. In light of these injustices, we call for Gist and the Department of Education to examine further the roots of the “educational crisis” and seek more meaningful measures to improve Rhode Island schools.
Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: its editor, Dan Jeon, and its members, Mintaka Angell, Samuel Choi, Nicholas Morley and Rachel Occhiogrosso. Send comments to email@example.com.