Posts Tagged meaningless diplomas

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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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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