Metro

R.I. House, Senate oppose graduation requirement

The requirement will apply to the class of 2014, despite opposition from the General Assembly

By
City & State Editor
Tuesday, September 3, 2013

In the final hours of the 2013 legislative session, the Rhode Island Senate and House of Representatives passed a joint resolution calling on the state Board of Education to stop a controversial high school graduation requirement developed by Education Commissioner Deborah Gist, set to take effect at the end of this school year. Despite the legislative opposition, the requirement appears poised to take effect this year.

Board of Education Chairwoman Eva Mancuso has repeatedly expressed her commitment to the requirement. “We’re not backing down. We’re not backing down right now,”Mancuso told WPRI after the Board of Education discussed the requirement for 90 minutes last week.

The requirement mandates that students either earn a grade of at least “partial proficiency” on the New England Common Assessment Program standardized test or demonstrate some improvement in their score from junior year to senior year to receive a diploma.

Though the state has administered the NECAP for years, the class of 2014 is the first with the new graduation requirement. Of the students who took the test last year, 40 percent — about 4,000 students — did not reach “partial proficiency” and are in danger of not being allowed to graduate. Those students will have the option to take the test twice more as seniors and only need to show a small improvement to fulfill the requirement.

The legislative vote was the most recent high-profile denunciation of the requirement. The joint resolution passed the House unanimously and the Senate 32-2, with two Republicans voting in favor of the requirement.

Rep. Eileen Naughton, D-Warwick, who co-sponsored the joint resolution in the House, said the NECAP requirement punishes students without providing them help. “If students are given time and the support they need during the years in which they are constructing the building blocks of their education, then we’re not going to have these problems with standardized tests,” Naughton wrote in a statement. “It’s just a shame that one class is going to be punished for not rising to the level of a test that was not designed for graduation evaluation.”

Elliot Krieger, spokesman for the state Department of Education, maintained that the graduation requirement places a minimal burden on students, offering them numerous opportunities to demonstrate improvement while guaranteeing that students who graduate are equipped with the basic skills implied by a Rhode Island diploma.

“We’re talking about a year later in which you’ve had a full year of math instruction,” Krieger said.“Every high school in the state has a program to improve their math performance,” he added.

If students do not boost their scores from junior to senior year, “they really didn’t avail themselves of these opportunities to improve,” he said.

Rep. Edith Ajello, D-Providence — who represents the district that includes Brown’s main campus — voted in favor of the resolution, citing concern over whether the NECAP was designed to be used as a graduation requirement.

“The NECAP test was developed to compare schools to see how they are doing on teaching a broad array of topics that it would be good for (students) to learn,” Ajello said.

Though Ajello did not rule out the possibility that she could support a different test as a graduation requirement, she said, “If you are going to have a test that is make-or-break for individual students, it should be a test that is designed to be that sort of decision-maker.”

Krieger said there is “nothing in the scoring, the design, development (or) administration of the test that makes it inappropriate for use as a graduation requirement.”

“I’m not stuck on one test, but I haven’t heard anything that makes me say we’re doing the wrong thing,” Manusco said.

Rick Richards, a retired Department of Education employee who has worked in both the office of testing and evaluation and the office of school improvement, said that while nothing technically disqualifies the test’s use, the NECAP might not have been properly tested to serve as a graduation requirement.

The Providence City Council also passed a resolution — introduced by Sam Zurier, chairman of the Council’s education committee — requesting that the Department of Education remove the graduation requirement, arguing that it does not provide students “a reasonable chance to succeed, and imposes devastating consequences on many children who, through no fault of their own, are not ready to achieve the required test scores.”

Mayor Angel Taveras also voiced concern about the requirement. In a letter addressed to Mancuso, Taveras wrote he is worried “state leaders have imposed a graduation requirement on our students that is tied to a questionable measurement of individual proficiency and graduation readiness.”

The NECAP requirement has become a lightning rod for activists who bemoan the increasing prominence of high-stakes testing in high school education. The Providence Student Union, a student-led organization founded at Hope High School in 2010, has held numerous demonstrations against the requirement, during one of which 40 adult state leaders took sample math NECAP questions and performed worse than the students. About 60 percent of the adults failed to reach the “partial proficiency” milestone that guarantees graduation from high school.

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