The chorus of dissenting voices among Rhode Island students, parents and teachers regarding the use of high-stakes testing to evaluate teachers and students has joined a broader national debate over education reform and what many politicans, activists and students call the crisis in American schools.
While political momentum — particularly among leaders of the Democratic Party — suggests the use of federal educational benchmarks and standardized testing is here to stay, Rhode Island’s leaders and policy makers said the state can still adapt policies to meet its specific needs.
With the 2014 state elections approaching, hopeful candidates and local officials have been contemplating what stance to take on the controversial issues of high-stakes testing, charter schools and teacher evaluations — all of which have ignited debate among potential voters.
“There’s certainly a lot of talk about the national agenda on education,” said Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14 P’17. “There’s very spirited debate about the core curriculum and about testing,” particularly at National Governors Association meetings, he said.
Though education has historically been in the hands of the local community, the federal government has been increasingly involved in crafting and determining education policy, Chafee said.
Federal involvement in education began growing in 1983 when former president Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education published a report entitled “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform,” according to the Public Broadcasting System. The report surveyed studies highlighting national academic underachievement and proposed several federal policy recommendations, including setting higher national standards for achievement. A Republican U.S. Senator in 2001, Chafee was part of what he called a “lopsided” bipartisan vote in favor of the No Child Left Behind Act, which bolstered the national movement toward standards-based education, he said. The act, signed into law by former president George W. Bush in January 2002, requires states to administer standardized tests to receive federal funding.
In another step toward a national standard, 46 states have adopted the Common Core, a national education initiative to align curriculum standards across states.
But pushback has emerged against education reform, “as the federal government gets more and more involved,” Chafee said.
The question may not be whether the federal government will continue to track student progress through assessments, but rather how they do so and at what cost, Tyler added.
“Given the amount of dollars going into the public education system, I don’t think we’re going to go back to a system where we aren’t trying to measure as best we can the outcomes,” Tyler said.
There is an economic incentive to test students to ensure they meet a meaningful skill level for employers, as well as a social incentive to ensure that “the people that are walking around with a high school degree have the level of skills and knowledge that we would want in an educated citizenry,” Tyler said.
Steve Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island American Civil Liberties Union, said the nation’s reliance on high-stakes testing is “misguided” because of the assessments’ severe repercussions for individual students.
“Debates may always abound. What matters is what happens on the ground that affects the lives of kids and teachers and parents in our society,” Tyler said.
A state solution
Rhode Island shares similar educational challenges with many other states, including teaching a large number of English language learners in the state’s urban core.
An August report from the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University found the state’s English as a Second Language program is in crisis and the educational achievement gap between Latinos and white students in Rhode Island is among the 10 worst in the country.
But the state has unique advantages in terms of effecting reform, Chafee said, pointing to the benefits of having “a galaxy of superb higher education institutions” that can work with local schools.
Last year, the Rhode Island General Assembly combined the Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education with the Board of Governors for Higher Education into an 11-member Rhode Island Board of Education, with the aim of fostering collaboration and consolidating oversight of education from kindergarten through college, Chafee said.
Though the consolidation has not worked perfectly, “the goal is to try to see what we can do with our higher education — especially our public higher education,” he said.
The state’s smaller population can be an advantage in tailoring new national standards to fit communities’ needs, said Seth Yurdin, Providence City Council majority leader.
“The system is smaller and more knowable, and I think it could be easier to effect change by pushing ideas into the system or pulling from the schools into the administration,” Yurdin said.
Chafee said state leaders must stay involved in national debates over education reform if they hope to find state-level solutions.
But Rhode Island Board of Education Commissioner Deborah Gist said the national debate is not always relevant to the particular needs of the state.
“If we take what’s happening nationally, most of the time it’s not consistent with what we’ve designed. We have taken local lessons learned and local feedback,” she said.
Providence Mayor Angel Taveras said that while national trends can affect state policy, state solutions can also influence national debate.
In March, Providence won a $5 million grant from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to continue a program Taveras spearheaded that aims to expose underprivileged children to more words early in their development to strengthen long-term literacy.
“We have the opportunity to lead the way for the rest of the nation,” Taveras wrote in a statement to The Herald. “What we’re doing to turn around failing schools in our cities could be replicated across the country.”
The NECAP trap
The newly implemented requirement that students either score at least “partially proficient” on the New England Common Assessment Program test or demonstrate improvement in later attempts to qualify for a diploma came under heavy criticism after the results of the first test showed around 4,000 students scored below the necessary threshold.
“When the fear was attached to high-stakes testing and graduation, that elevated the criticism,” Chafee said.
While most of Rhode Island’s political leaders say they believe standardized testing has some merit, some argue the state has gone too far.
“Testing is more useful for trying to evaluate systems than it is to evaluate individual students,” Yurdin said.
Jorge Elorza, a likely candidate in the Providence 2014 mayoral election, signed up to take the NECAP with the Providence Student Union — a group of students and organizers who oppose the graduation requirement.
“You really scratch your head and ask yourself, ‘How is the material on this test part of the basic material that we think every high school graduate should have mastered?’” he said. “I have no philosophical (objection to) standardized tests, but I’m convinced that the NECAP is the wrong test.”
In a letter to Chafee and Gist last May, Taveras wrote that standardized testing can help measure and evaluate education. But in that same letter, Taveras voiced opposition to using the NECAP as a graduation requirement, writing that “the test was not designed to say whether students achieved mastery of a body of knowledge.”
State leaders face a distinct challenge — using the test to bolster achievement levels without denying students education, Chafee said.
To achieve this balance, Rhode Island will follow the example of neighboring Massachusetts, which began mandating benchmark scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System 10 years ago, he said.
“Having these standardized tests as a diagnostic is an extremely effective tool so we can direct resources where they’re most needed,” Elorza said. But, he added, if the policy incentivizes teachers to teach only to tests, students will not develop analytical skills or gain valuable experience with group projects, gym and the arts.
“Preserving the time they have for these experiences is critical,” he added.
The national Race to the Top contest, announced in 2009 by President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, provided financial incentives for states to expand their usess of teacher evaluations and charter schools. Complying with Common Core standards, lifting caps on charter schools and implementing performance-based standards for teachers helped Rhode Island become one of 18 states and the District of Columbia to win the contest. Rhode Island received $75 million from the federal government to advance these reforms.
“Teacher evaluation as one tool of education reform is one of the biggest pieces of education reform in the nation today. It’s certainly playing out in Rhode Island,” Tyler said. Evaluations have revealed a wide range of teacher effectiveness — mostly within schools rather than between schools — and have brought to the fore “exactly how important” teachers are for a system of education, he added.
“Teacher evaluations are a very, very difficult area to be fair on,” Chafee said. “Every year, the same teacher in the same school will have a different class with different abilities,” he said. It can also be difficult to enforce fairness when “the temptation might be there by administrators to penalize union activity under an evaluation,” he added.
Policymakers “have to be careful not to let that happen,” Chafee said.
Implementing the teacher evaluation portion of Race to the Top remains a work in progress, Chafee said, referencing Gist’s decision this summer to delay their use for another year.
As the 2014 elections approach, both elected officials and aspiring candidates are promising to take responsibility for issues such as standardized testing, charter schools and teacher evaluations.
“This whole issue of high-stakes testing should be a topic of discussion and debate in the upcoming elections — for governor, certainly, and then perhaps for other offices,” Brown, of the ACLU, said. While ultimately the decision is in the hands of the Board of Education, the governor can influence appointed officials, he said.
Chafee, who has announced his decision not to seek reelection next year, said he hopes the next administration will “continue to make a commitment to higher education and be wary of the charter school movement.”
Increasing resources for schools requires collecting more revenue through taxes and fees, which is generally unpopular with voters, Chafee said. Putting resources into schools, both K-12 and higher education “has been a priority and commitment of my administration in my time as governor,” he said. “I put the resources toward schools at my own peril.”
If elected mayor, Elorza said he would like to continue Taveras’ legacy of investing in early childhood learning and literacy.
If elected, he would also give “more autonomy to schools” and “invest in professional development for principals” in an effort to create a “culture of excellence in every one of the 39 schools in the district,” he said.
The City Council will aim to push for collaboration between teachers’ unions and the administration and avoid relying solely on standardized tests, Yurdin said.
Entering the next election cycle, the controversy surrounding high stakes testing shows no signs of abating. And future policymakers will face tough decisions about high-stakes testing, graduation requirements and other education reform policies in Rhode Island.