Hoping to fulfill graduation requirement, thousands take NECAP retest

Rhode Island high school students must improve on junior year scores in order to earn diplomas in 2014

Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The NECAP is designed to measure student achievement using a four-point scale, with a rating of two designating “partial proficiency.”

This article is part of the series Testing Success?

As some of Rhode Island’s high school seniors embark on the college application process, over 4,000 of their peers are still unsure whether they will graduate from high school this spring.

When these students first took the New England Common Assessment Program as juniors, over 40 percent of the class of 2014 failed either the math or reading portion of the test.

The NECAP, first introduced in Rhode Island in 2005 for elementary and middle schools and extended to the state’s high schools in 2007, is a standardized test produced by New England-based Measured Progress, which aims to evaluate student proficiency in math, reading, writing and science.

Beginning with the current senior class, the Rhode Island Diploma System requires students to pass the state’s standardized testing requirement by either performing at least at a “partially proficient” level or showing improvement between test administration cycles in order to receive their diplomas.

The test is graded on a four-point scale — one is substantially below proficient, two is partially proficient, three is proficient and four is proficient with distinction.

In Providence, which offers a choice between eight public high schools differentiated by academic focus, approximately 65 percent of students failed the math portion of the NECAP last year and 20 percent failed the reading portion, according to Measured Progress statistics.

At Hope High School, only 19 percent of students passed the math portion of the test. Approximately 80 percent of Hope’s senior class is retesting this month to try to qualify for graduation.

In contrast, only 6 percent of current seniors at Classical High School, the district’s highest performing school, are retaking the exam this year.

Given the poor performance of students during the previous testing cycle, the Rhode Island Department of Education has been forced to defend the new Diploma System as both student and teacher communities have protested the graduation requirement.


Federal assistance 

Since former president George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act in January 2002, states have been required to administer standardized tests in math and reading to students in third through eighth grades and high school juniors to continue to receive federal funding for their school systems.

Rhode Island implemented the NECAP to meet this testing requirement, said Elliot Krieger, public information officer at the state education department. Prior to the passage of NCLB, the state had been testing students but not at every grade level now required by the act, he added.

The state had two options — buy a test from a testing company or create its own standardized test, Krieger said. Because of Rhode Island’s small size, the education department decided to team up with New Hampshire and Vermont and form a consortium to create a test, Krieger said.

The states originally “had their own programs that all included a large portion of open-ended items where students had to provide their own response, and they didn’t want to give up that type of test,” said Harold Stephens, NECAP program director at Measured Progress.To avoid switching to a completely multiple-choice format, the states pooled monetary and personnel resources to create a set of grade-level standards, which the states collectively adopted in 2003, Stephens added. The consortium then came to Measured Progress to design the test itself, he said.

The current test includes multiple choice, short answer and constructive response questions and is designed to test critical thinking as well as knowledge, Stephens said.

“The goal of the NECAP was and always has been to measure (whether) students have met the standard at their grade level,” Krieger said.

Rhode Island is the only state that uses NECAP scores as a graduation requirement, Stephens said.


Making the grade 

In 2008, the Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education  ruled that NECAP scores would be used as part of the state’s graduation requirements starting with the class of 2012, Krieger said.

According to Measured Progress, students who score below “proficient” on the exam have not met grade-level expectations. Prior to the state’s decision to institute the exam as a graduation requirement, about 80 percent of students statewide were not meeting the proficiency benchmark on the math portion and almost 40 percent were below “proficient” in reading.

But the administration took into account students’ historical scores on the NECAP when creating the standard, said Deborah Gist, state education commissioner.“We all know that students should be at least proficient before they graduate from our high schools. That’s what they need in order to be successful,” she said.

But based on the low percentage of students earning proficient scores in previous years, the Board decided it would be unrealistic to use as a graduation requirement right away and set the bar at “partially proficient,” she said. The Board of Regents revised the graduation requirements in 2011 to include the possibility of fulfilling the NECAP requirement by demonstrating improvement on the test between students’ junior and senior years, Gist added.

The Board also delayed the graduation requirement to first apply to the class of 2014, Krieger said.

Under the current policy, Rhode Island students must pass the NECAP assessment, successfully complete 20 courses and complete two “performance assessments,” such as “exhibitions, portfolios … or comprehensive course assessments” to earn high school diplomas, according to the education department website.

A common misconception about the NECAP requirement is that students must score “partially proficient” their junior years to graduate, Gist said. In fact, students may retake the test in the fall of their senior years and again in the spring. If they neither score “partially proficient” nor show improvement from a previous test, they can apply for a test waiver, show proficiency in math and reading in another way or submit an appropriate score on one of 10 possible alternative tests — such as the PSAT, SAT or ACT, Gist said.

Students can also appeal their graduation decisions, Gist added.



Despite the education department’s measures, over 40 percent of the class of 2014 is currently ineligible to graduate this spring.

The NECAP’s opponents have criticized the test as an unfair measure of graduation readiness. “We think there is significant evidence that this testing requirement simply was not designed and is not valid for determining whether or not a student should be getting a diploma,” said Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island ACLU.

The graduation requirement has spurred controversy across Rhode Island, with many saying it unfairly targets racial minorities, students with disabilities, economically disadvantaged students and English language learners. Opponents also question the suitability of the test for measuring graduation readiness.

“This obsession with high stakes testing is misguided. It benefits nobody but the testmakers. The impact is substantial, because without a diploma the ability of these young people to get jobs or take certain paths in life are simply closed,” Brown said.

In June, 17 organizations, including the Providence Student Union — a student activism group — the Rhode Island ACLU and the Providence chapter of the NAACP formally filed a petition asking the Board of Education to reconsider the use of NECAP scores as a graduation requirement.

Despite public outcry, the Board of Education voted 6-5 to keep the NECAP as a graduation requirement during a private session of a Sept. 9 meeting. The R.I. ACLU filed a lawsuit against the Board of Education, following the decision, for voting on the petition behind closed doors.

At the end of this year’s legislative session, the Rhode Island House and Senate passed a joint resolution calling on the state education department to end the use of NECAP results as a graduation requirement. Providence Mayor Angel Taveras has also asked the school board to reconsider the conditions of the Diploma System.


Race to the top

Though the debate over the NECAP continues, Rhode Island will adopt the new  Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for Colleges and Careers test in public schools for the 2014-2015 school year. The state is phasing out the NECAP exam because it is not designed to test student proficiency under the new Common Core Standards, a set of federal grade-level expectations in mathematics and English, Krieger said. Under this new system, the state will implement new grade-level standards, and the new test will more accurately measure student success according to these standards, he added. Rhode Island was one of the 19 governing states involved in the creation of PARCC in accordance with the Common Core, he added.

But the science NECAP will be administered until its contract runs out in 2017, Stephens said.

Rhode Island is one of 46 states to adopt the Common Core standards, a policy incentivized by President Obama’s 2010 Race to the Top initiative by linking federal funding to adherence with the Core.

The Common Core Standards have already been criticized from both the right and left of the political spectrum for creating a one-size-fits-all approach to education, decreasing state autonomy and setting unrealistic standards for students and educators.

But supporters have said the standards create necessary benchmarks for student proficiency and set high goals for student learning, preparing students for success in college and keeping Americans competitive on the global scale.

Tomorrow’s story will explore the pressure on Rhode Island teachers to improve student performance on standardized testing, despite continuing concerns over their efficacy in measuring student success.


A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that 80 percent of Hope’s student body is retesting this month to try to qualify for graduation. In fact, 80 percent of Hope’s senior class is retesting.


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