Posts Tagged high-stakes testing

Rhode Island Legislates Low Expectations

Published by — You would think the RI Legislature would be knocking itself out to back workforce development… but no.

Currently, Rhode Island has the highest unemployment in the nation.  As unemployment was falling nationally, RI stayed high even as train-wreck states like Michigan (with the near demise of the auto industry) and Nevada (massive real estate bust) improved.  Business-climate reports put RI at or near dead last in their rankings, including on the quality of the workforce.

So you would think the Rhode Island Legislature would be knocking itself out to beef up the economy by backing all manner of workforce development, like making high school diplomas more meaningful.

But no, quite the contrary.  They just dismantled years of work designed to make students accountable for learning a bit of math and English.

As of the graduating class of 2014, students were required to “pass” the statewide test, NECAP, in English and math, to earn a diploma.  “Pass” merely meant achieving better than Level 1, or “substantially-below proficient.”  Students who failed had multiple chances to re-take the test, and even then only needed to show improvement.  They could also take other tests.  And districts were allowed to grant waivers and give out diplomas anyway to those who failed all testing efforts.  The bar couldn’t have been lower.

But the Legislature, and those who have the Legislative ear, got a violent attack of enabling and decided to spare the kids this super-minimalist expectation.  So for the next three years, schools are forbidden to hold students accountable for their test performance.  If kids feel like blowing off state exams, no prob.  The Legislature got them off the hook.  Whining to the right people in RI helps you weasel out of a lot. The message to the kids is:  “We hold you to low expectations.  We feel sorry for you.  We’ll protect you from facing this academic challenge.”

Just up the coastline, Massachusetts has been showing the world that high expectations via “high-stakes” tests in high school will inspire the schools and most importantly, the kids to rise to the occasion.  In 2003 when their state test, the MCAS, first counted towards graduation, the number of high school students who passed the test on the first try rose 20 percentage points over the prior year.  Kid didn’t get smarter, they got serious.  They had a dog in the fight.  If MA students want a diploma, they work for it.  As well they should.

Last year, roughly 4,000 of the 11,000 juniors in RI’s graduating class of 2014 failed to get out of Level 1.  The protest against the test requirement was deafening, while the lack of curiosity about those 4,000 seemed mind-boggling.  For example, did they go to school regularly?  I ask because a study that examined the MA students who failed the 2003 tests found that most were chronically absent, defined as missing 10 days of school or more.  Regularly-attending English-language learners and special-needs students passed at far higher rates than their peers who were absent 10 days or more.  No matter what your challenge, going to school improves performance.

If RI’s Level 1 failures didn’t bother going to school regularly, why should they get diplomas?  What does it mean to “earn” such a diploma?  A local research study found that 20 percent of RI’s 2009 graduates were chronically absent during high school.  The same study goes on to show that graduates with horrible attendance enrolled in college at lower rates and washed out at higher rates than those who regularly went to school.

In other words, the Legislature is making it official that RI diplomas can be placebos, nice confections of convenience.  They certify nothing.  RI’s Education Commissioner Deborah Gist has been absolutely right to push schools to give out diplomas that mean something.  Feel-good diplomas don’t feel so marvelous when the kid’s academic skills are so poor she’s taking remedial classes in college, or hasn’t the 9th-grade skills required for job training.  Workforce development, anyone?

Good parents will tell you that if you set an expectation with a consequence, you’d better follow through.  If not, your kids get the idea that boundaries are squishy and that they can dodge obligations and accountability.  That’s how we create brats and under-performers.  RI students have known they could stay another year in high school to earn a real diploma, however unappealing that may be.  Or else pay better attention in the first place.

Protecting kids from hard challenges at which they might fail is the legacy of the self-esteem movement.  It’s no favor to the kids to enable them to feel good and effective when in fact they’re not.  Actually, it’s kinda horrible.  All kids need high expectations and high support.  They need the adults to be there for them, encouraging their efforts and holding them responsible.

Ah Rhode Island.  I do love it.  But it’s like loving an oppositional-defiant, special-needs child.  My heart’s in it, but it’s oh so hard.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyzes data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Math-Haters Love Crunching Numbers for Business Plans

Published by — For far too long, project-based or “constructivist” learning has been at war with the “drill-and-kill” focus on building skills first.  A balance is best.

Five high-school seniors cluster behind a pillar in a lecture hall at Rhode Island College.  Behind them is a movie-sized screen, and in front looms a modest but intimidating stadium of seats.  With the giggling and “Oh my God!s,” they’re reviewing the game plan for making their upcoming presentation.

To my eye, these students, urban and suburban, don’t seem academically challenged.  But none of them passed the math section of last fall’s state test, which is now a graduation requirement.  Fully 38 percent of RI’s seniors are at risk of not receiving a diploma.  The field refers to them as the “Level 1s,” the lowest test level, “substantially-below proficient.”

While some people vigorously oppose the requirement itself, others organized “cram camps” to give these students urgent-needed help.  The Northern Rhode Island Collaborative, an education-support organization, hired Christine Bonas to assemble educators to develop and deliver this two-week summer intensive.  An ex-math teacher herself, and now guidance counselor, Bonas gets both the academic demands and the kids’ lack of motivation.

Because whatever kept the kids from learning math before, they’re into it here.  The program is brilliantly designed.  Teachers spent the first day asking students what they don’t like about their community.  Answer:  plenty.

Okay.  So get into teams and pick one problem — like, no place for teens to hang out, bad public parks, a need for animal rescue shelters.  (Yes, many shelters exist, but so what?)  Then, build a business model with a plan that will solve the problem.  Don’t whine; take an entrepreneurial approach.  With your idea in hand, research the costs of rent, labor, utilities, equipment.  Prepare multiple spreadsheets that explain income and outflow, start-up costs and maintenance.  Develop “what if” scenarios for unanticipated expenses.  Talk to local business leaders, provided by the program, about your calculations.

Lastly, learn how to pitch your idea.  To add a competitive game element, local businesses pooled $1,000 seed money for the winning plan.  I’m at their pitch rehearsal, but superintendents and business leaders will evaluate the final presentations tomorrow.

The giggly group emerges and makes a thoughtful presentation.  Their business eliminates the hated condition of teens depending on family and friends for rides.  They show us an example of eco-friendly electric mini-buses that will take kids to the mall, their friends’ house, wherever.  The team wanted a cost-free service, but crunching the numbers ruled that out.  (A snootful of Reality is such a good lesson.)  Taking turns, students walk us through slides of spreadsheets that show us they’ve been steeped in manipulating numbers effectively.

Apparently, the these students’ final presentations were so good, the kids surprised even themselves.  Business planning gave them a real-world feel for what they could actually DO with math skills.  Bonas says “The light dawned on them that this is what math is for.”  Bingo.  This should have happened long ago.

Why can’t school be like this all the time?

Bonas was blunt.  “As a former math teacher, I can tell you that you’re handed a textbook and told how to do it.  We’re not able to think outside the box.”  Partly that’s a result of the way teachers are trained, and partly because districts have gotten more and more prescriptive for their teachers.  She says, “It’s a manufacturing process.  You’ve got too much to do and you’ve got to get it done.  You don’t have time to be a dynamic teacher.”  She explains that “project-based learning,” where students actively pursue a project of interest to themselves, takes more work to plan.

“To teach them a slope, we (math teachers) put a formula on the board, give them graph paper and show them the rise over run.  There’s always one kid who says, When am I going to use this?  The teacher says, uh, well, see that roller coaster?  Parabolas are how to keep them from crashing.  That’s no answer.  They don’t care.  But if you ask a kid to show me how your business is going to make a profit, they can show you time on the “x” axis and increase in cost on “y”, suddenly we’re looking at a negative slope.  Oh!, they say.  Because we’re teaching in context.  Parabolas have to have something to do with their lives.  Making a profit is something they can care about.”

For far too long, project-based or “constructivist” learning has been at war with the “drill-and-kill” focus on building skills first.  Skills are critical, but as Bonas notes, the kids don’t learn if they don’t care.  Learning can’t be either/or.  Get kids hooked on solving problems that matter to them, but stop them here and there to teach and reinforce the skills they need.  Both/and.  Bonas’ kids talked to bankers, attorneys, accountants.  As one girl said about these interviews, “They, like, so opened my eyes to how much detail you need to have.”  Of course details matter.  Dream all you want, but the math has to work.  Skills and projects need a healthy balance.

We’d have fewer “Level 1s” of all kinds if school were more engaging, creative, meaningful.  Bonas says, “I’m amazed by the growth I’ve seen in just two weeks.”  Now imagine the growth after a whole year of that.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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News Flash, Attending School Helps Students Pass Tests

Published by — The Boston Globe’s research found that the great majority of students who failed the first (2003) MCAS had been “chronically absent.”

In 2003, Massachusetts imposed high-school graduation requirements that included passing the state test, the MCAS.  The state set the bar inches from the floor, so “passing” required knowing precious little math.  But even this minimal requirement met with loud, fierce and sometimes full-on vicious public opposition.

Ah, but everyone knows that story had a very happy ending.  Massachusetts held the course, weathered the assaults, and became the darling of American education.  They’ve even been able to notch the bar up since then, gently pushing for ever better results.  Just getting that first cohort of high-school kids to give a fig about the MCAS, as a grad requirement, improved the pass rate by 20 percentage points overnight.  Huge.  But no one succeeds to their potential when the stakes are puny.

Now, ten years later, Rhode Island is going through the same experience, under remarkably similar circumstances.  The bar is low.  Kids have multiple opportunities to re-take the test.  The percentage of RI kids who didn’t pass the NECAP first time around — 38 percent — is similar to the unhappy first-timers in MA — 32 percent.

Like MA, RI officials didn’t buckle to the opposition, thank God.  RI must improve the quality of its education and workforce.  But other than getting the kids invested in their own scores and learning, what else might help?

Recently I came across a 2003 Boston Globe article reporting on the newspaper’s own analysis of the first cohort of students who did not pass that year’s MCAS.

Their findings were something of a jaw dropper, frankly.  Yes, students with special needs were somewhat more likely to have failed.  Ditto English language learners.  But even among them, the effects were substantially mitigated by one simple factor:  attendance — whether or not they regularly went to school.

The Globe research showed that the great majority of students who failed the MCAS had been “chronically absent,”  as defined by missing at least 10 percent of the school year, or about a month of school at least.  As kids get into the habit of bunking, likely many of them continue, year after year.

Thanks to recent national research on the subject, America is finally awakening to the problem of chronic absenteeism, which has probably been pervasive for a long time.  Educators examined school drop-out rates and overall attendance, but where were they on this topic?  It’s weird that a media outlet did the 2003 research.  But what’s far weirder is how little was made of the issue back when these glaring facts were first discovered.

Apparently, 94 percent of MA students who matriculated every year from grade to grade, passed the 2003 high-school MCAS.  But even among those who’d been held back a grade, or who’d moved to different schools frequently, or whose schooling was otherwise disrupted, even they were much more likely to pass if they were not chronically absent.    Low-income and special needs students were far more likely to pass if they went to school.

So there it is, writ large:  If you go to school, your odds of passing these low-expectations state exams are all but signed and sealed.  Bunk school and failure is likely yours.

Rhode Island’s officials have not yet crunched any such data that I know of, nor have the local media outlets.  So I’m only guessing that many of that 38 percent of non-passers were probably bunkers.  And if they didn’t go to school, why should they get diplomas?  What’s the message to the kids if they get a diploma anyway?  We owe you.  Really?

When visiting one of last summer’s many NECAP programs for the non-passers, I asked a suburban student if he was worried about passing his NECAP retake.  He said he was totally worried, because he couldn’t understand why he failed it in the first place.  After all, he complained, he studied really hard right before the test.

Wait a second!  He “studied?”  Statewide tests are supposed to assess an accumulation of years of being steeped in numeracy.  What could he use to cram for a state exam?  Was it for a night, two weeks, a month?

Loads of obstacles keep kids from going to school, ranging from the need to take care of family members to just feeling bored and disconnected from academics and their school community.  Schools must investigate why students don’t come, and partner with social services when the problems are beyond the schools’ capacities.  But every school’s main job is to set kids up for future success, so helping all kids master the entry-level discipline of showing up every day and on time is essential.  And yes, their families and communities must be involved in this as well.

But if young adults don’t go to school, it’s definitely no favor to them to let them think they should get diplomas no matter what.  Go to school; pass math.  Get real.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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Rhode Island, Raise Your Rock-Bottom Expectations

Published by — Rhode Island sets ambitious academic goals, then dismantles them.

Suddenly, in the wake of the state’s testing results, the Rhode Island General Assembly has whipped up legislation designed to quash any thought of the state having meaningful diplomas. How like them.

Companion bills — H-5277 and S-177 — would eliminate the unbelievably-modest test requirement for graduating from high school. Last week, the House version was heard by the Health, Education and Welfare Committee. Passions waxed. Abuse of the kids alleged. The mediocrity of the current status quo affirmed. Enabling lauded.

No wonder the state is such a mess.

Mind you the requirement is minimal, a small step up from zero diploma standards, which is what we have now. The class of 2014 and high-school students henceforth need to score at Level 2 or better to qualify for graduation. Level 1 is “substantially below proficient.” See last week’s column for details about currently available supports and accommodations for non-passers.

My concern this week is the message these bills are sending to the kids. It is: Well, no, we don’t want you to have to work hard and earn, however modestly, a diploma that certifies Something. If you’re blowing off your work or cutting school, we’ll protect you from consequences. If you’re legitimately struggling, we’ll protect you from the bother of exercising your right to get all the help you need to meet the standard for real.

The expectations of the Rhode Island public are so low, you can walk on them.

Already in 2008 and then again in 2010, the Board of Regents told the public-education community that students would eventually need to test out of Level 1. Both times public uproar pushed the deadline back in order to give teachers, kids, schools and parents time to get their act together. After the second bruhaha, the requirement was finally established for next year’s graduating class.

So this is nothing new. The General Assembly certainly could have taken action before now, but didn’t. The message was out there. But when challenge presents itself, the attitude in Rhode Island is: this too will pass.

And lo! It does. The Legislature now jumping in for a last-minute save proves the point. We set goals and then dismantle them. Which is exactly how we get our nation-leading unemployment rate, dismal business climate and expensive, mediocre schools.

So it’s sad, but not a huge surprise that the class of 2014 who took the test last fall, as juniors, did not ramp up their game as though urgency were upon them.

True, proficiency in the Math test, the hardest one, improved a healthy 4 percentage points. And the percentage of students in Level 1 dropped from 44 to 40. So there were some gains. But that 40 percent is about 4,000 students. The state can not afford 4,000 drop-outs.

But wait. Annually, about 1,900 students drop out of Rhode Island high schools. To date none of those left because of a test score.

Furthermore, of the students who do graduate from RI high schools, about 20 percent are chronically absent, meaning that they miss a month of school each year, or more. (See: High-school absenteeism and college persistence on the RIDataHUB, page 6.) Twenty percent?! Surely those students could achieve more if they got their sorry butts to school more often.

And students have been quoted recently saying they receive only “A”s and “B”s in their classes, but score at Level 1? Huh? What’s wrong with that picture? I was no testing hotshot myself, so I had to learn strategies to improve my scores. If these students are so diligent, with grades like that, surely they too can pick up the test-taking skills that would get them out of Level 1. (Or the kids’ school is a total sham.)

Because life is a test. Meeting benchmarks is a life-long requirement, whether it’s getting a drivers license or dressing for a job interview. What’s the standard and what do I have to do to meet it? Learn that lesson.

Mind you, the plight of the 4,000 kids is real, and upsetting. I do not minimize the steep challenge of meeting the new bar. They have been done wrong. In several respects. Including that they haven’t been held accountable for their performance to date.

You’d think the taxpayers, parents, teachers, indeed the kids themselves would be applauding the higher standards. Pluck and ambition are good things. You’d think folks would be rallying around those kids who haven’t yet made it, offering to help in any way.

You’d think they’d be saying: We know you can do it. We have high expectations of you and we want you to have high expectations of yourself. We understand you need support to get there, so we’re here to help however we can. We believe in you. We’ll both feel marvelous when you succeed! And you will!

These are the encouraging words of all great parents, teachers, politicians and adults in general.

Instead, what we’re doing is called “enabling.” We are the Ocean of Enabling state. We see struggle and rush in to spare anyone from working harder or learning anything. Our status quo is famously bad. Rock-bottom expectations keep us there.

Dear Legislators: A meaningless diploma serves no one, especially not the kids. How dare you think so little of them. Encourage and help them instead.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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Students Can Take More Responsibility for Success on State Tests

Published by — Test scores go up when the results make a difference to the kids.  Otherwise many won’t takes tests seriously.

Until the year 2000 I adamantly opposed “high-stakes” state testing, where failure would cost a kid a diploma.  Why penalize kids for what the schools failed to do?

But that year, in a stunning upset of my assumptions, Massachusetts’ 10th-graders improved an enormous 20 percentage points on the statewide MCAS.  From 48 percent proficient to 68 in a single year.  Educators do happy dances when they gain 4 or 5 points on large-scale assessments.  But 20?  Truly miraculous.

What happened was that the kids suddenly had skin in the game.  For the first time the tests counted towards their diplomas.  Starting with the graduating class of 2003, MA required students to “pass” the MCAS — albeit at a very low bar — to be eligible for graduation.  That lit a fire under a lot of adolescent butts.  My overly-trusting heart assumed the kids had been doing their best.  Well, not so much.

For three years, the kids and schools had been told this requirement would kick in.  They heard it.  Many of the 32 percent who didn’t pass the first round were only just shy of the goal.  At each of the five opportunities to retake the test, the passing percentages increased until 95 percent had met the requirement in time for their graduation.  The remainder were welcome to stay in school until they too were successful.

Rhode Island is now going through the same crisis.  Shortly after she arrived, Commissioner Deborah Gist mandated a similar requirement for RI’s class of 2014.  So the juniors who took the NECAP test last fall are the first class whose diplomas depend on “passing” the test — again, at a low level.  They too will have multiple chances to re-take.

They can also apply for waivers for extenuating circumstances, or submit other tests, such as the PSAT or ACCESS, designed for English-language learners.  And to make it totally possible to succeed, they don’t have to make it all the way out of “substantially below proficient,” but just show improvement in small, specified degrees.

Honestly, to meet such a nominal standard, kids really only have to pay serious attention in class and cooperate with whatever support the school provides.  Schools do NOT want to withhold diplomas.

I don’t meant to minimize the concerns of those protesting against this policy.  The students most affected are specifically those whose life prospects already look dim.  The numbers of students now at risk of not graduating is scary.

Currently 4113 students, or 38 percent of the class of 2014 has not yet passed one or both of the tests.  Math is a nightmare, with 4,075 non-passers.  Failing both math and English were 745 students.  Only 19 failed the English test, but passed math.

But Massachusetts was in exactly the same pickle, at the same juncture, with 32 percent who’d failed the first round.  So have faith.  If the RI re-take experience is anything like the Bay State’s, most students will get their fannies in gear and pass.

Or drop out.  Which remains a danger of high-stakes testing, to be fair.  But kids drop out for a million reasons.  The NECAP is not the only diploma requirement.  They could fail their courses or blow off their senior project.  In any case, if students are at all connected to school or motivated by the value of a degree in their future, they’ll get themselves over the hump.

The point is that the days of the utterly meaningless diploma need to be over.  Business and higher education have been screaming for years about incompetent young people coming to them entitled to a paycheck or a college “A” for whatever they produce.

Massachusetts’ diplomas are starting to have credible value.  Since the state passed its famed 1993 education-reform legislation, their schools have clawed their way from middling to the tippy top of the national achievement benchmarks (NAEP) in all subjects.  And it has stayed there over time.  The many facets of their reform efforts are too numerous to mention here.

But among them was the dynamo of handing some responsibility for success to the kids themselves.

Mind you, I still think Americans are just weird about their faith in tests and testing.  I keep hearing about “multiple measures,” but see the same old test scores sliced and diced only to be over-emphasized in all sorts of evaluations.  “Multiple” means tests along with a bunch of other, different indicators.

Still, while not golden, test data are valuable.  The public, businesses and taxpayers deserve to know that the diploma certifies something.

And protecting kids from a minimal standard of performance is just a form of enabling them — as the Massachusetts’ story demonstrates.

Maybe if the RI kids have to share the responsibility for their results, they’ll turn on us, the adults, demanding we take better care of the institutions that should be serving them better.  We deserve it.

Because at the end of the day, the educational results belong to them.

Meaningful diplomas are an excellent goal.  All parties — including parents and the public — should be doing their bit to improve education.  It’s not nuts to hand some of that responsibility over to the kids as well.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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