High school testing requirement stirs debate

The R.I. Dept. of Education policy has raised questions about the validity of standardized testing

Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 19, 2013

A new R.I. Department of Education policy that would require high school juniors to receive a grade of partial proficiency or higher on the New England Common Assessment Program to graduate has stirred heated debate, garnering opposition from Mayor Angel Taveras and several student advocacy groups.

Under the new policy, students who fail to meet the standard in their junior year will have two more opportunities to take the test as seniors. If the student shows any improvement at all, he or she will be allowed to graduate, said Elliot Krieger, executive assistant for communications for Education Commissioner Deborah Gist.

Forty percent of juniors “scored substantially below proficient” in this year’s test, administered in October, according to a state press release. But it is unclear how the requirement will affect graduation rates given that students will have the opportunity to take the test twice more their senior year.

Sam Zurier, chairman of the Providence City Council’s education committee, added his voice to the debate Monday, indicating that he will submit a resolution to the City Council requesting the state abandon the use of NECAP scores to determine high school graduation eligibility, the Providence Journal reported.

Zack Mezera ’13, founder of the Providence Student Union, a group opposed to this requirement, said that while the state’s schools need high standards and the diploma should represent fulfillment of these standards, the new regulations do not adequately measure a student’s academic capability.

“Thinking that answering four or five more questions on a standardized test is a signal of proficiency gained is also kind of silly,” he said. The state should intervene early in students’ education rather than engaging in “a flurry of activity at the end of their high school careers.”

“Some (students) do well outside of high school, and they are really skilled,” Mezera said. “But to see some of these students didn’t pass the test really makes me question whether this is a valid measure of their worth and their market viability after graduation.”

The Providence Student Union has previously protested the requirement through a press conference at the Rhode Island State House and a zombie march. The group also gathered local politicians and public opinion leaders Saturday to take the NECAP test and“see how arbitrary the test itself is,” Mezera said. Many of these adults found the test to be challenging, the Journal reported, and the official results will be released today.

Gist thinks the new graduation requirement is a reasonable expectation and is in fact “probably too low an expectation,” Krieger said.

“We lose about 1,000 students in junior and senior year across the state. Some may have been good students, some may have been average and some may have had potential but not gotten the instruction they need,” Krieger said. “Our hope is to make a dent in that.”

The new policy requires “commitment from teachers, students (and) school leaders,” Krieger said. These groups need to work together to help students “earn the diploma, and the commissioner is confident students and families are really stepping up to this,” he said. As an example, Krieger pointed to the increase in student participation in Virtual Learning Math Modules, which help students struggling with math. Almost 2,600 students have signed up since this year’s NECAP results came out in February, nearly a ninefold increase over the 300 who initially joined the program.

John Tyler, professor of education, said tests like the NECAP have the ability to show whether schools are teaching students at least the minimum material associated with a high school diploma. The test provides students an opportunity to prove they have the necessary skills to graduate, and “in a world where data on graduation rates are made public,” the fear of bad results incentivizes schools to support students, he said.