Students in grades 3-8 improved their reading and math scores on an R.I. standardized test by 5 and 3 percent respectively this year, according to results released by the Rhode Island Department of Education last week.
Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System results for the 2018-19 school year still fell short of the high standards set by Massachusetts.
Overall proficiency in the subjects remained low, at 38 percent in English Language Arts and 30 percent in Mathematics. The tests, administered at the end of the school year for all students in grades 3-8, are a new tool the state uses to measure school performance and accountability.
The state adopted RICAS for the first time last year. Meg Geoghegan, spokesperson for the Rhode Island Department of Education, tempered expectations about this year’s score increases. “It’s a national trend that when you’ve adopted a new assessment, the second year you see that bump.”
But she, as well as Fran Gallo, interim superintendent of Providence Public Schools, remained encouraged: “I am very pleased to see improvements in PPSD’s RICAS scores; however, I know our work is far from over. …While we know we have a long way to go, these scores are promising,” Gallo wrote in an email to The Herald.
The RICAS testing system is the same assessment as the MCAS, the system used by Massachusetts. Rhode Island adopted the system last year to allow for comparison with Massachusetts’ education standards. “Massachusetts is really the leader in national education; that’s the comparison we should be making, not only as they’re the national leader but they’re also our neighboring state. So having that apples to apples comparison is really helpful for us,” Geoghegan said. Rhode Island considers Massachusetts a “trusted partner,” she added.
After multiple changes to the testing systems used by the state, Rhode Island plans to stick with this system for the foreseeable future because “the General Assembly actually…passed a law that basically said that we can’t change assessments for the next ten years,” Geoghegan said.
But although the RICAS is an important assessment tool, Geoghegan emphasized the holistic approach RIDE takes to evaluate schools. “We have … a whole host of measures that we look at for school performance. … A big part of that is making sure that schools aren’t overly weighting one measure over the other.” Geoghegan explained that “in a lot of systems … the high performance in one area can mask low performance in another. With our accountability system, we really tried to reimagine that.” Rhode Island uses multiple systems to assess its schools, including a five-star system that reflects the performance of the entire school in order to avoid glossing over any subset of poorly performing students. “If you have any student subgroup that is performing at a one-star level, it would be impossible for you to be a five-star school,” she said.
This year’s RICAS results reveal some interesting trends, said Professor Kenneth Wong, chair for Education Policy. Notably, performance of the youngest students relatively exceeded that of their older peers in Math, demonstrating a “linear decline.”. Wong noted that “the third graders are actually doing a much better job and they are closest to where their peers are in Massachusetts … But then when you look at the other grades, the gap is wider.” He suggested that without a solid foundation in lower grades, students perhaps fell further behind as the difficulty of their material increased in higher grades.
The state contends with numerous factors that limit its ability to improve public education, which is reflected in low test scores, Wong said. Low-income students often have greater needs in urban areas such as Providence, he added. “Even within a district there are some students who may need more support, so the specific use of resources to support the high-need students becomes a decision that has to be made by the school superintendent and the principals and the teachers.”
To an extent, funding from the district currently depends on the seniority of teachers at various schools. Wong suggested that the district could further direct funding to schools on the basis of the needs of students. “We need to … allocate the resources to meet the needs of the student … and use the student as a center of resource allocation,” he said.
While Rhode Island ranked eighth in terms of per-pupil expenditure nationally in 2017, Wong also said that the state could improve how and where it spends this money. “Instead of evenly distributing all the money across all the schools, maybe now we need to think about how we can use the budget to respond more effectively to the high-need students.” Smaller class sizes and more teacher attention per student could be possible strategies to help high-need students, Wong added.
“One area teachers and district leaders can work together immediately is to identify the 10 percent of the schools that have not been able to show any progress in either of the subjects over the last year, and then try to learn from other schools that have shown making some good progress over the last year,” he said. “Professionals can also work together and learn from each other as well.”