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RI switches tests in high school, making growth impossible to measure.  Why do that?


Beginning in 2006, the federal government required all states to test students in grades 3 through 8, and once in high school.

In 2018, RI wisely dumped the unloved NECAP state test and switched to the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), considered to be the best K-12 state testing program in the country. 

That was a brave move. An apples-to-apples comparison between students in the two states would inevitably shine a harsh light on RI’s underperformance. Indeed, if RI were a district in MA, it would fall in their lowest 10 percentile.

But RI only uses the RICAS (our renamed MCAS) to assess grades 3-8. Logically we would use the high-school MCAS to ensure consistency within the state system and comparability with MA. But no.

We use the PSAT in 10th grade and the SAT in 11th. 

Huh? Aren’t those college entrance exams? What do they have to do with a K-12 state testing system? 

From 3rd-8th grade, the 2022 RICAS English scores show a decline from 36.5% proficient in the 3rd grade to 29% in 8th. (Math rebounded for 8th graders from 16.1% in 2021 to 20.8% proficiency.)

But from 8th-10th grade, the state system jumps the track and starts over. The PSAT can’t show us an individual student’s or school’s academic MCAS growth. It’s like following up on a funky thyroid test with a cholesterol panel. 

Instead, the PSAT becomes a new baseline to measure against the 11th-grade SAT, a year later. 

This presents high schools with two huge problems:

First, RI urban students often enter 9th grade with abysmal educational backgrounds. Likely they read at a 3rd, 4th, 5th-grade level. If by grade 10 or 11, a high school ramps up individual readers by more than 3 grade levels, wow and high fives! But that progress is nowhere acknowledged in the accountability system. Instead, the school is deemed substandard for not teaching elementary-level readers to meet high-school standards.

Second, from the get-go, the purpose of the Scholastic Aptitude Test was to help colleges sort through their applicants in search of academic promise. But after accusations of biases against certain student cohorts, SATs have become optional at about 80% of colleges. Not even colleges find the SAT super useful.

Most importantly, what does a college-entrance exam say about K-12 students interested in auto mechanics, the military, construction, healthcare support (phlebotomist) or union apprenticeships, none of which require 4-year degrees?

Instead, we learn that sorted from top to bottom, SAT scores and median family income almost match. Which we already knew.

And it tells families with money they might want to invest in the bazillion-dollar test-prep industry to boost their kids’ shot at the “best” colleges. No family money, no test-prep for the other kids.

In other words, using the SAT solidifies structural inequities. 

Why did we do this to ourselves? 

The official answer was that about half the students take the SAT anyway, so the switch would be easy. Well, so what? And what about the other half? 

The unofficial answer is that MA requires students to pass a modest MCAS benchmark to earn a diploma. That requirement poisoned RI’s adoption of a high-school MCAS, even though no test is bound and tied to a graduation requirement. (Not that the requirement hasn’t done wonders for MA’s workforce.) Still, guilt by association proved too toxic to build a consistent, unfragmented, useful testing program.

At the end of the day, you can call RI’s state testing “system” a reinforcement of inequity. But don’t call it accountability.

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First published: Providence Journal, April 29, 2023



  • Al Dussault says:

    You make a perfect argument. I find along with you that testing is a bit like this: if america manufactured shoes they would make only a size 9 1/2 because that would fit more people.
    I am glad to see you still working on Restorative Justice.

    But, who listens anymore. Sometime I see a smart column like yours and I think to myself doesn’t everybody have their minds made up?
    Great column.

    • Julia Steiny says:

      Actually, I’m okay with testing, in general. I hate that they use the results to bludgeon school staff since data results tell you nothing other than to: Dig Here. But without the results, we really don’t know what we’re doing. The problem with the SAT is that is is inconsistent and irrelevant to the questions posed by K-12 kids not on college track. But testing keeps the community honest, if the community is willing to be honest.

  • Joan McElroy says:

    I always appreciate your information and insights, Julia. Perhaps they are especially important in a case like this one, which is so disheartening. Thanks for your good work.

  • Alain Morin says:

    I have not taught in Providence for almost 7 years but based on my 13 years of experience I found several things that apply to your proposition.
    A year or two before I arrived, the PPSD elected to removed shop classes from the curriculum. And as reaction to a lawsuit EVERY student went on a “College Track”, in other words every kid was going to college – 100%. Well, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that less than 33% of the students will actually be successful in finishing a college education. Unanswered is the simple question “What about the lower 67%?”. Example – every 9th grader is required to take Algebra I. Most are doomed to fail if they cannot tell the difference between addition and multiplication. Furthermore, there is no consideration of what that failure does to the kids.
    The other trend in virtually all public schools across the country is the bogus idea that “one size fits all” in the delivery of subject matter. Note – EVERY student learns in their own unique way! Effective teaching cannot be done if the individual needs of every student is not taken into account.
    Why is “Civics” missing from the HS required curriculum?
    Teacher evaluation should be based on Value Added metrics.
    Classical HS should be closed – those students should be in every high school to act as role models for the rest.
    I could go on but in the back of my mind is that you stopped reading after the first few sentences.

    • Julia Steiny says:

      Well, you’re certainly right about not all kids wanting or needing to be on the “college track.” The danger, of course, is that historically kids were on different tracks, but often by skin color or other irrelevant nonsense. Civics got folded into “social studies” which became whatever the district wanted it to be. This is an issue that is getting attention now, though. I agree about value-added metrics, agree whole-heartedly, but no state has come up with smooth techniques for achieving them. Lastly, nah, Classical High should be reproduced. Read up on the experience in Boston where, for example, the next tier of kids who didn’t get into one of the top exam schools, got into a new next rung school. This is working well for them. There need to be more places to shoot high, not none. The way I would change this is to give every kid interested in Classical the entrance exam AT their school instead of dragging them out of bed on a Saturday. Cast a wider, more accessible net and start making places for more advanced learners. And for vocational learning, and thematic or magnet learning.

  • Julia Steiny says:

    Thank you as always for your kind words. One guy wrote and complained that I was yet another voice blaming educational policies and instututions when the real culprits were the parents. That’s convenient since there’s nothing we can do about them until the institutions that are supposed to serve them and their families improve and be be trusted more. Sigh. Thanks again.