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The highest stakes: Our children's education

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After the election, the state Department of Education released the results of the Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System (RICAS), which mirrors the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS).

The results revealed that only 34 percent of Rhode Island students were proficient in English while 27 percent were proficient in math. Rhode Island students trailed far behind their peers in Massachusetts.

Afterwards, Timothy Duffy, the executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, commented that Rhode Island did not hold its educational system accountable for failing students and did not require students to pass a test to graduate from high school. R.I. Education Commissioner Kenneth Wagner admitted Rhode Island schools “are dramatically under-challenging our kids.”

These poor test scores must ignite an urgent effort to raise Rhode Island student achievement levels. Massachusetts became a national leader in education after it set high academic standards and required students to pass a test to graduate from high school. Rhode Island should do the same, and adopt high-stakes testing.

Efforts to reform education date back decades. From the 1960s to the 1970s, a long-term decline in Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores occurred, which some blamed on soft educational standards. Meanwhile, reports of unprepared college students became prevalent. For example, in 1975, the results of one exam showed that two hundred University of Rhode Island students had writing skills below that of an eighth-grader, while another test showed that half of the entering class at Rhode Island College lacked proficiency in writing.

Declining test scores and functionally illiterate college students sparked a “back to basics” movement nationwide. Efforts were made to establish minimum competency testing, which required students to pass a test showing they could read, write and complete basic math to graduate from high school. During the late 1970s and into the 1980s, about one-third of the states adopted a minimum competency testing requirement. In Rhode Island, similar legislation was proposed, but died in committee after it was opposed by the National Education Association and concerns were raised as to its cost and its impact on local control over curriculum.

In 1983, a commission appointed by the Reagan Administration published a report entitled “A Nation at Risk,” which declared that the “educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity.” The report blamed poor test scores on lax standards, social promotion, and grade inflation.

Nationwide, attempts to reform education were renewed. In Massachusetts, efforts to raise standards and increase school funding culminated in the passage of the Education Reform Act in 1993, which increased state education aid and accountability in the school system. Because of this legislation, high academic standards were established, and curriculum frameworks were set consistent with these standards.

The MCAS test was based on these standards, and students were required to pass it to receive a high school diploma. The MCAS was first given in 1998. In 2003, it became a graduation requirement. In his memoir, Massachusetts Education Commissioner David Driscoll wrote that the “pushback against the MCAS was incredible” and for a time, the graduation “requirement was in real jeopardy.” But the MCAS test requirement was preserved. Today, Massachusetts students routinely outperform their peers across the nation.

Meanwhile, Rhode Island followed a meandering path to mediocrity. During the 1980s and 1990s, reports recommending education reforms were often ignored, but requests for more education spending were often granted. Eventually, Rhode Island’s per-pupil expenditures were among the highest in the nation, and its class sizes were among the lowest.

But Rhode Island test scores hovered around the national average and lagged behind other New England states. In 1998, the Providence Journal reported that “attempts at education reform” had “been stalled by resistance of administrators and teachers’ unions and by state legislators.” The Journal also explained that “accountability” was “the missing link in public education” because there was “no real consequences” for “poor performance.”

A decade later, a new effort at education reform was made under R.I. Education Commissioner Deborah Gist. In 2011, the R.I. Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education required students to pass the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) to receive a high school diploma starting in 2014. Subsequently, school districts changed their curriculums to meet the higher NECAP standards, and there was some improvement in test scores.

However, teacher unions and some parents opposed the new requirement. The R.I. Board of Education remained steadfast, but others did not. After House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello switched his position, the General Assembly voted to delay the new graduation requirement until 2017. The Board of Education further postponed the testing requirement until 2020 and then dropped it altogether. Wagner replaced Gist. Over a few years, the NECAP was replaced by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), which was then replaced by the MCAS, which is the model for the RICAS.

Massachusetts only spends a few hundred dollars more per student than Rhode Island. The poor performance of Rhode Island students on the RICAS is not due to a lack of funds, but a lack of accountability in our school system. One way to bring more accountability to our schools is to adopt high-staking testing as Massachusetts did. Within five years after the MCAS was first given, it became a graduation requirement in Massachusetts. The same should occur in Rhode Island.

Once there are consequences for not passing the RICAS, school districts will have the impetus to make the necessary changes, including to their curriculums, to meet these high standards. Unless there are consequences for failing to meet high standards, these standards can be ignored.

High-stakes testing alone may not improve student performance but it played a vital role in improving student performance in Massachusetts.

For too long we have accepted excuses and settled for mediocrity. Let us aspire for excellence and settle for nothing less. The future of our children is at stake. The stakes could not be higher.

Steven Frias is Rhode Island’s Republican National Committeeman, a historian and recipient of The Coolidge Prize for Journalism. He is also the father of three children who attend public schools.

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