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City students say state testing inhibits learning

The material covered by the high-stakes NECAP is not emphasized by current curricula, students said

Tammie Paris, a senior at Hope High School, recently took the math section of the New England Common Assessment Program for the second time. Her score last year was low enough that if she did not demonstrate improvement on either this test or a third attempt this spring she would be barred from graduating under rules implemented by the Rhode Island Department of Education this year. But her poor performance has not turned her against the test, she said.

“It’s a good test, and it’s good to see your improvement,” she said, adding that some sort of graduation requirement is necessary to make sure students are prepared for the real world.

But preparation for the test is lacking, Paris said. “You have to wing it in a way.”

Paris attended a summer prep course earlier this year and took Saturday classes this fall, but she said they didn’t increase her confidence with the material.

“I don’t think they’re helpful,” she said, adding that key concepts she saw on the NECAP were missing from her math classes.

Though Paris said she thinks the state should have a unifying graduation requirement for students, “final exams would be fine” and enough to prove readiness to graduate.


Students sound off

The math section of the test also proved difficult for Asia Ochoa, a junior at Hope High School, who said that when taking the test she asked herself, “Did I even learn that?”

“Teachers are saying, ‘It’s what you should know,”’ Ochoa said of the content on the NECAP. Though she said her classes prepared her for most of the test, “there were things I was missing.”

Classical High School senior Kate Gasper passed all the required NECAP tests her junior year. “English was very easy, and the math wasn’t too difficult,” she said, adding that her classes prepared her for those sections but not the science section, which is not a graduation requirement. Despite her success on the tests, Gasper said she supports “the anti-NECAP movement.”

“There should be a test, but because NECAP wasn’t created as a graduation requirement, I don’t think it’s a good idea,” Gasper said. She added that there should be some way to hold Rhode Island students to national standards but the NECAP should not be tied to graduation.

Hideki Tani, a sophomore at Classical High School, said the NECAP was “unfair because if you’re having a bad day, it could determine whether you graduate or not.” He added that there were “a lot of factors” besides intelligence and material retention that could affect test performance.

When asked if he was nervous for the test next year, he said “a little, because I struggle in math.”

“It’ll depend on my teacher. If they’re good, then they’ll prepare you for NECAP,” Tani said, adding that he thought some teachers would not prepare him well enough to pass the test.


The silent majority?

State Education Commissioner Deborah Gist, who spearheaded the move to make the NECAP a graduation requirement, has acknowledged student opposition but said “it’s important to recognize that an organized group of students in one community doesn’t necessarily speak for every student in the state.”

“I meet with students all the time. I meet with student groups. I meet with individual students. I meet with individual students and families. I meet with people when I go out in the community and visit schools, so I am very regularly in communication with students and parents,” she said. Some students are less concerned about the requirement than others, she added.

“I’ve definitely talked to students who have told me that they’re not sure what all the reaction is about,” Gist said. “I’ve heard a variety of opinions from students that are not all one voice.”

At a press conference following the board’s vote to uphold the requirement, Chairwoman of the Board of Education Eva Mancuso, who has provided key support for Gist, said, “The time for discussion is over. … We are using the NECAP as a graduation requirement, period.”

“I’m not going to get involved with sideshows with 16 year olds,” Mancuso said.


A students’ union

A talent show in front of the Rhode Island Department of Education building drew a crowd of students, teachers and supporters of the agenda of the Providence Student Union, a group of students and organizers that has orchestrated numerous events across the state in an attempt to do away with NECAP testing. Student performances at the rally ranged from rapping to playing the violin to performances by dance groups and vocalists.

Sam Foer, a junior at the MET School, said he “doesn’t agree with high-stakes tests at all.”

“Even at the MET” — which boasts a distinct educational philosophy based on hands-on learning — “our education is put toward prep for the NECAP,” he said.

“I really struggled in middle school” Foer said, and “would have dropped out” had he not transferred to the MET.

Foer has been “taken out of classes” to get extra NECAP prep time. “It puts a roadblock in front of education,” he said, “because the stuff on the NECAP is stuff you’ll never use.”

Foer said he felt confident taking the reading and writing sections earlier this year after studying. “I was very nervous (about NECAP) my freshman year, but I’ve done what they wanted me to do — I studied.” But he said he was still nervous about the math section. “I don’t know if I will be proficient.”

“Lots of kids break down in the middle of the test, because their whole life is on the line,” he said.

Cheyanne McLaychlan, one of the event’s coordinators and a PSU member, said the NECAP is “just a test” that does not allow students to showcase their potential effectively. Its narrow approach to subjects is “unfair,” she said.

“Schools can support and encourage us to do better, instead of just telling us,” McLaychlan said, adding that she would like to see more after-school programs and tutoring for struggling students.

The NECAP is “set up to make students fail,” said Bryan Varela, a Providence high school student and member of the PSU, who added that the test was not covered in the curriculum. In place of the NECAP, Varela proposed “something more career oriented” and specific to student interests, proposing computer simulations, engineering projects or group work as possible substitues for the test. “It would show what the student needs to know and would be better for the student,” he said.

Justin Farmer, a sophomore at the Jacqueline M. Walsh School for the Performing and Visual Arts, said standardized tests in general are not “preparation for the real world.” When asked how he feels about taking the NECAP next year, he said he is “kind of nervous.”

“Some kids are just not good at standardized tests, and they’re forced to suffer,” he said, adding that high school graduation should be based upon “grades and personal interviews,” which would determine whether the student was ready for the next step.


Brown students reflect

A large majority of Brown students said they believe standardized test results should play at least “a small role” in high school graduation requirements. A poll conducted by The Herald found that only about 12 percent of students believe standardized test scores should play no role in graduation requirements for public high schools. About 40 percent of students said they believe scores should account for a small role, 41 percent said they should play a moderate role and 5 percent said they should play a large role.

Students at Brown generally found state standardized tests “pretty easy,” said Jacob Kirschenbaum ’17, or “not something to complain about,” said Melitzi Torres ’15.

Kirschenbaum, who attended Scarsdale Senior High School, said he took the New York Regents standardized test and is “definitely against it.”

“It was the easiest test we took all year, and it counted a lot because the teachers knew we’d all get high scores,” he said.

Torres said that as one of the top students in her class at Shea Senior High in Providence, she was not as “stressed” about the NECAP as many of her classmates, though the test did not yet constitute a graduation requirement.

“I don’t think it’s fair,” Torres said. “My high school was notoriously poor-performing.”

Changes to the curriculum “got rid of freshman biology and replaced it with Integrated Science, which was basically prep for the NECAP math,” she said.

In place of the NECAP, Torres suggested students create portfolios of their work, which would “show how they’ve improved” over the four years they spent in high school.


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