Metro

State leaders continue battle over grad requirement

Forty percent of R.I. seniors may not graduate on time due to their NECAP performances

By
Senior Staff Writer
Monday, September 30, 2013

State Education Commisioner Deborah Gist’s requirement that all high school students in Rhode Island obtain a score of “partial proficiency” on the NECAP examination or demonstrate improvement on their second or third attempts to graduate continues to spark debate across the state.

The Rhode Island branch of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit last month protesting the lack of transparency in the state Board of Education’s decision to support the requirement. The decision was made at an exclusive retreat without the opportunity for public hearings or discourse. This is the third lawsuit the ACLU has filed against the Board of Education in the past few years regarding the NECAP requirement, said Steve Brown, executive director of Rhode Island ACLU.

“This is a matter of critical public interest, and it requires public debate,” Brown said. “We were really surprised that the board felt it could discuss this issue in a private session when numerous organizations have been specifically pushing them to do just the opposite,” he said.

Under the mandate, 40 percent, or approximately 4,000 of Rhode Island’s seniors are in danger of not graduating at the end of the current school year based on the first set of examinations administered at the end of their junior years, according to a WPRI review of Rhode Island Department of Education data.

“This is affecting literally thousands of families,” Brown said. “Students who have disabilities, students who are English language learners and a variety of other vulnerable student populations are bearing the brunt of this NECAP requirement, but it is also something that is affecting wealthy communities throughout the state,” he added.

After the ACLU and more than 12 other organizations signed a petition requesting that the Board of Education reconsider using the NECAP test as a graduation requirement in June, Chairwoman Eva-Marie Mancuso said the board planned to make the decision at a private retreat in August, WPRI reported at the time.

The board assented to the requirement after a six-to-five vote — demonstrating “a lot of dissent within the board itself about the utility or the legitimacy of using the NECAP as a graduation requirement,” Brown said.

“Every high school in Rhode Island offered students additional instruction and support during the school year and over the summer, in a commitment to improve mathematics achievement,” Mancuso wrote in an opinion article for the Providence Journal published Sept. 19.

Jim Vincent, president of the Providence branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the NAACP does not agree with the Board of Education’s decision to mandate the NECAP as a graduation requirement, though the NAACP is not involved in the current ACLU lawsuit.

The “astronomical numbers of people failing the test indicate a problem with the system, not necessarily the students themselves,” Vincent said. “I just question the whole validity of having a test like that as a requirement,” he said.

Instead, the board should focus on supporting students earlier in their educations and devote funds to building a solid foundation in elementary school, Vincent said. “This is a lazy way to do it,” he added.

“I’m not saying you shouldn’t use the NECAP,” Vincent said, adding that the test can be a useful tool to “take the temperature” of a classroom or a school district to see what areas need improvement. “But to penalize students who are ‘victims’ — I just don’t see any benefits,” he said. “If it doesn’t significantly help our students’ chances in terms of life and college, then why are we doing it?” he added.

“We are very aware of the issues before us regarding equity and access, and we will closely monitor the implementation of every aspect of our diploma system, including the requirement that students must score partially proficient or better on the grade 11 state assessments — or else show modest improvement when they retake the tests in their senior year,” Mancuso wrote in her piece for the Journal.

The court will schedule a hearing for the Board of Education to respond to the ACLU’s complaint, Brown said. If the court rules in favor of the ACLU, he added, the organization will push for public hearings in the next month.

“The lack of public discussion by the board should be of concern to everybody,” Brown said. If the court requires the Board of Education to hold public hearings, “the board would receive a tremendous amount of information from people who have been following this issue,” he added.

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