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High-stakes testing pressures R.I. classrooms to focus on NECAP

Teachers said exams should inform evaluations of aggregate rather than individual performance

Though New England Common Assessment Program retesting concludes this week, Rhode Island’s high school seniors may be unable to enjoy their final year until results are released in February. Over the next four months, many teachers will wait anxiously alongside their students as they also experience the effects of increasing pressure to produce higher test scores.

Once scores are released, students who are still ineligible for graduation can apply for test waivers or submit alternative exam scores to satisfy the state’s requirement. But teachers will continue to face the new, data-driven approach in secondary schools — one many said leaves them fewer options or strategies in the classroom.


High stakes 

Teachers interviewed expressed frustration not with the exam itself but rather with how Rhode Island uses its results. Many teachers and community members said they do not fundamentally oppose using standardized tests to measure how schools and districts perform as a whole.

The Rhode Island Department of Education instituted a graduation requirement tied to performance on the NECAP beginning with the current senior class as a part of the “Diploma System,” that is designed to verify and enhance graduation preparedness. The NECAP was administered in Rhode Island’s public high schools for six years prior to implementation of the requirement. Though the policy was first proposed in 2008, community outcry from students, parents and teachers forced the state’s Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education to amend the requirement and suspend its institution.

“To the extent that it gives us more data, (standardized testing) is valuable” because it indicates “where we’ve succeeded, and where we have more work to do,” said Aaron Woodward, a teacher at Paul Cuffee’s Upper School.

Standardized testing produces cumulative data that can help teachers and administrators determine which skills students have already mastered and which ones schools should still emphasize, wrote Brian Fong, a former visiting lecturer and director of the Social Studies/History MAT program, in an email to The Herald.

“I believe in assessing our students,” Fong wrote. “Without assessing what our students are able to do, you really don’t know what’s going on (in) schools.”

But teachers and advocates said problems arise when standardized tests are used to evaluate individual students.

“The NECAP was never supposed to be a marker for individual students,” said Diane Schulze ’16, a program coordinator of the Rhode Island Urban Debate League, adding that the test “fails to recognize different types of intelligence.”

“We really don’t think any high-stakes test should be a high-stakes test,” said Anne Mulready, a lawyer at the Rhode Island Disability Law Center, calling it unfair to make graduation contingent on a student’s performance on a single test.

“To tie it to graduation is insane,” said Nancy Krahe, a social worker at the Providence School Department, adding “I’ve never seen students so frustrated. I’ve never seen staff so stressed.”

“It’s supposed to be used as a diagnostic,” said Anna Kuperman, an English teacher at Classical High School, adding that high-stakes testing “is not good in theory, it’s not good in practice.”

“One test does not make the individual,” said Rep. John Lombardi, D-Providence. “Let the teachers teach.”


Lack of preparation?

RIDE’s increased commitment to high-stakes testing is the wrong approach, said Aaron Regunberg, staff member of the Providence Student Union, a student activism group that regularly protests the NECAP graduation requirement.

Regunberg compared the requirement to the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System created by the 1993 Massachusetts Education Reform Act. Massachusetts only began mandating benchmark MCAS scores in 2003, he said — after 10 years of devoting extensive resources to improving the quality of education in their public schools.

Massachusetts invested over $2 billion in its public education system over a seven-year period before tying MCAS to graduation, according to a release from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

This increase in resources allowed Massachusetts students to perform well on their state’s test, Regunberg said. But Rhode Island made no such prior investment, he added. “We didn’t do any of that prep work, and we haven’t put in the resources,” he said.

Many Providence students have scored low, Mulready said, adding that these results have been misinterpreted and used as evidence that the state should in fact add more testing.

Some expressed concern that high-stakes testing leads teachers to neglect subjects not tested on the NECAP.

Attaching such weight to individual exam scores results in “more teaching to the test, more curriculum narrowing,” Regunberg said, adding that it encourages “a reduction in the kinds of learning and techniques that are most engaging.”


Classroom dynamics 

The extent to which the requirements affect teachers “depends on where you are,” said Woodward, who teaches English and history, adding that teachers feel the most pressure in schools where student performance on the NECAP is strikingly low.

For that reason,  curriculum reductions and other negative effects most often appear in already struggling schools, he said.

Kuperman said she has not devoted more time to test preparation in her classroom since the graduation requirement was passed — she said focusing on testing “doesn’t mean (students) are getting a better education.”

Teaching students how to “fill in bubbles” is not meaningful for their development, she added.

But Kuperman said her beliefs are not necessarily those of the average teacher.

“People are definitely spending time on (test prep),” she said.

The NECAP requirement has not only affected teachers of subjects being tested. Though social studies is not tested on the exam, Orah Bilmes MAT ’89, a social studies teacher at Alvarez High School, said the test nonetheless influences her classroom and teaching. Administering the test “takes up a lot of days” during which she cannot as effectively teach students who have been “very demoralized and stressed” by the test, she said.

Students who work with “caring educators” and make significant academic progress despite structural obstacles — such as a lack of English language skills — may still not be able to graduate, given the NECAP requirement, Fong wrote. This situation both concerns and disheartens teachers, he added.


Outsourcing education 

Hiring top school administrators from outside the district can result in leadership approaches that do not respond to the school’s actual needs, many said. And some of the problems associated with the NECAP stem from the exclusion of teacher voices when the state crafted such assessments, advocates said.

“We need to change the leadership at the top,” Lombardi said, adding that it is crucial to reinvest in the educational system and “utilize the people from within.”

Hiring outside administrators reinforces the notion that the average teacher cannot move up within the system and also means those in charge lack familiarity with the district or school’s unique problems.

“Education is a really localized issue that should be solved in localized ways,” Woodward said. Having educational policy experts involved in curricular development is valuable, but to have those driving educational reform divorced from the teachers who work in the classrooms poses problems, he added.

Teachers were completely removed from the development of the tests currently used to evaluate students, wrote Carole Marshall, a retired teacher from Hope High School, in an excerpt released to The Herald from her book “Stubborn Hope: Memoir of an Urban Teacher.” The book is scheduled to be published this winter.

They had “no part in test creation, no professional development, no role in scoring, no voice whatsoever,” she wrote.


Testing teachers or students?

Though the initial Rhode Island Department of Education policy outlined a system of teacher evaluations, Education Commissioner Deborah Gist announced this summer the program will not be implemented for the 2013-2014 academic year.

The teacher evaluation policy — set to be implemented next year — has been criticized for being linked to student performance on the NECAP.

“When a lawyer loses a case, he doesn’t lose his right to practice law,” said Krahe, adding that teachers should not necessarily be punished for poor student performance on standardized tests.

Test results are affected by several factors outside the quality of classroom instruction, and it is unfair to hold teachers accountable for variables completely out of their control, she said.

Federal policies like the No Child Left Behind Act, made clear to school administrators that they needed to improve test scores or face the consequences, Marshall wrote.

“(Administrators) were under enormous pressure and they brought it right back to us,” she wrote. Teachers were required to do much more work outside of the classroom, limiting time for lesson planning and leaving teachers “utterly overwhelmed by red tape.”

“Meetings with administrators became a tense interchange about the data,” Marshall wrote.

In schools where the majority of students do not have access to the same resources as wealthier students, “teachers can be disproportionately penalized” for the poor progress their students make on tests, Fong wrote.

When students do not prioritize standardized testing because they are facing “poverty, homelessness, abusive families, etc.,” teachers should not have their careers jeopardized “for that student’s situation,” Fong wrote.

Meanwhile, Krahe said, “Good teachers are rethinking why they’re in the field” because of these dynamics.


Disordered priorities

Some expressed concern that politics and financial incentives play too large a  role in determining the direction of education reform.

“It really violates what we’re trying to do here,” said Greg Davis, a teacher at Mount Pleasant High School, adding that he fears current educational reform is driven by perverse corporate incentives.

Recent developments have made education “all about testing,” he said. “It’s just not fair to screw (students) that way.”

“It’s really an assault on public education,” Krahe said.

The quantity of resources being paid to outside organizations to manage education in Providence schools “is really horrendous,” she said, adding, “it’s all about privatization.”

The implementation of curricula designed by large-scale education companies was very frustrating, Marshall wrote.

“I was being forced to teach canned curriculum purchased for millions of dollars from textbook publishers who knew nothing about urban teaching,” she wrote.


Racing in the wrong direction

The passage of Race to the Top legislation under President Obama’s administration has reinforced emphasis on standardized testing in classrooms.

“There is no chance that these tests are going to do anything for us,” Kuperman said, adding that the graduation requirement “is part of the move across the country to get data.”

Race to the Top is centered on quantifiable results, she said, and it gives the impression that “we have to be testing more” because that will improve student performance.

“Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work like that,” Kuperman said.

“The test is a symptom of the broader philosophy behind modern education reform,” Woodward said. The approaches to education “swing pole to pole,” he said — and “right now, the solution is sort of this data-driven, teacher-free” approach to education.

But high-stakes testing has not only affected teachers. Tomorrow’s story will analyze student performance on the NECAP, student experiences with the exam across the state and student activism against high-stakes standardized testing.

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