Metro, News

R.I. standardized test scores fall short of M.A.

Recently implemented testing system enables comparison between Rhode Island, Mass.

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, February 28, 2019

Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System test results from November 2018 show that Rhode Island school districts lag far behind their Massachusetts neighbors.

The standardized test was implemented in Spring 2017 for public school students in grades three through eight. Rhode Island students scored consistently lower than their peers in Massachusetts; the average gap between the states’ scores was 17 percent in English and 20 percent in math, according to The Providence Journal. These results were “sobering,” said Meg Geoghegan, communications director at the Rhode Island Department of Education, adding “If R.I. were a district in Massachusetts, we would be in the lowest 10 percent.”

The RICAS is identical to the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, so adopting this test allows for “an apples-to-apples comparison to Massachusetts,” Geoghegan said. “This a comparison we want … (and) need to make.”

“The unexpected headline … is that the RICAS results are a huge success” because they have captured attention and sparked dialogue around long-term education strategies in Rhode Island, Geoghegan said. She added that the ability to compare local communities with those in neighboring Seekonk mobilized Rhode Islanders on this issue.

Kenneth Wong, professor of education policy and director of the Urban Education Policy Program, called the RICAS results “a wake-up call,” adding that “it is a good opportunity for educators as well as major stakeholders, the governor, the commissioner, even the state board and universities, for example, to work together to come up with a plan.”

The plan could mirror Massachusetts’ long-term plans, which have led to an education turnaround called the “Massachusetts Miracle,” Geoghegan said.

Massachusetts wasn’t always doing so well. “Massachusetts in 1998, when (education reform) started there, was basically on par (with) where we are today,” Geoghegan said. “We’ve adopted elements of what they’ve done, but really Massachusetts has had a comprehensive long-term strategy, and we need to do the same.”

Today, Massachusetts is ranked the No. 1 state in public education nationwide, according to USNews & World Report. Rhode Island comes in at No. 9.

Rhode Island adopted Common Core State Standards in 2010, which set guidelines for performance in English Language and Mathematics. In conjunction with the recent adoption of RICAS, the state has prioritized promoting the standards in Common Core. These core principles include high-quality curriculum, ongoing professional learning for teachers and strong foundations for students, Geoghegan said. Particular areas of focus will include early literacy, middle school math and “career pathways for students.”

Director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees Timothy Duffy said that adopting the test of the best statewide performing school system in the country “sets a very high bar” and warned that “there can’t be any fundamental changes” to this current strategy. “We need to settle on a course of action,” Duffy said. “If these are our standards, and this is the assessment that measures our ability to reach those standards, then we have to stay with it, regardless of who happens to be running the department.”

Geoghegan echoed Duffy’s concerns, emphasizing that when faced with similar problems, Massachusetts remained committed to their original plan. “The most important thing for us right now is that we can’t blink. …We have to really stay focused on those core principles that influence education,” she said.

The switch to the RICAS is part of a more general effort to better inform the public of Rhode Island schools’ performance.

“We have kind of a new level of data transparency,” Geoghegan said. In addition to the new test, RIDE introduced an online Report Card platform last December to share diverse assessment information about every school. Beyond assessment results such as an overall performance rating of the schools, the Report Card platform displays “a broader range of measures,” including student and teacher chronic absenteeism. “Rhode Island was the only state to include teacher absenteeism as an accountability measure,” Geoghegan added.

According to Geoghegan, the RICAS and Report Card platform are helpful in gaining “the most complete picture that you can for school and district performance and then using that to move forward on meaningful policy.”

RICAS has the potential to improve Rhode Island education, according to Geoghegan: “I think it’s a good starting point.”

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