October 1, 2013

Parents, teachers decry NECAP graduation requirements at forum

By    Dan McGowan /WPRI.com

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – As thousands of students across the state prepare to take the NECAP exam, parents, educators and elected officials gathered Monday to again call for state officials to scrap the controversial graduation requirement that ties a high school diploma to performance on the standardized test.
More than 40 adults attended a two-hour forum at Rhode Island College, largely beating the drum on some of the most common critiques of the NECAP component of the state’s graduation requirements:
The test is unfair to English language learners and students with learning disabilities; students aren’t being adequately prepared in earlier grades; and the graduation requirement forces educators to “teach to the test,” eliminating the opportunity for students to receive a well-rounded education.
“Test scores shouldn’t bring teachers to tears, parents to tears or students to tears,” Julie Motta, the director of education in East Providence schools, told the crowd.
The NECAP - which is also administered in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire - is given to students grades 3 through 8 and again in 11th grade. Beginning with the class of 2014, students must score "partially proficient" on the math and English portions of the test or show growth when they retake the exam in order to earn a diploma.
The test begins statewide Tuesday.
As it stands now, approximately 4,000 students – roughly 40% of 12th graders - must improve their scores on the NECAP in order to be eligible to graduate.  In Providence, more than 80% of students at four high schools—Alvarez, Central, Hope and Mount Pleasant—have to retake the test.
“It hurts me to think about my friends not being able to continue on and do what they want to do just because this test says so,” Hector Perea, a member of the Providence Student Union, said during the forum.
Monday’s forum was organized by several members of the R.I. House of Representatives, including Providence Rep. Maria Cimini, Warwick Democrats Eileen Naughton and Frank Ferri and Teresa Tanzi of Narragansett. The legislators did not invite anyone from the state Department of Education to attend the event, according to a spokeswoman for Education Commissioner Deborah Gist.
Cimini, a Democrat serving her second term in the legislature, indicated she favors testing, but not as a graduation requirement. She acknowledged that there was no clear goal for the forum, and warned that education policy is largely overseen by the state’s 11-member Board of Education, not the General Assembly.
But that hasn’t stopped legislative leaders and other prominent politicians – including Providence Mayor Angel Taveras – from calling on state officials to back away from the graduation requirement, at least for the class of 2014. In one of its final acts of the 2013 legislative session, the House and Senate overwhelmingly passed a joint resolution urging the Board of Education to reconsider the mandate.
“The other New England states do not use the NECAP for the purpose Rhode Island is using it for,” Naughton told the crowd.
Students who fail to earn a qualifying score in the 11th grade have the opportunity to retake the exam twice during their senior year and are eligible to use scores from other tests – such as an AP exam, the SAT or the Accuplacer – in order to meet the requirement. Students only need to show improvement when they take the NECAP exam in 12th grade – meaning they could still graduate without showing partial proficiency on the test.
In addition to the NECAP component of the graduation requirements, students are also required to complete course work, as well as performance assessments such as a portfolio or senior project, to prove they are qualified to receive a diploma.
“I believe we need to have a measure that we judge our work by, I believe that public education is our legacy” Rep. Lisa Tomasso, D-Coventry, said. Tomasso acknowledged she was one of the few NECAP supporters at the forum.
Board of Education Chairwoman Eva-Marie Mancuso and Gist, the education commissioner, have both pledged their support for standardized testing to be one component of the state’s graduation requirements. In September, Mancuso said she wants to wait until the current year’s NECAP scores are returned before making a decision on whether to keep the requirement in place for the class of 2014.
Rhode Island will phase out the NECAP exam and begin administering the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exam during the 2014-15 school year. That test will be taken in 22 states.
Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Twitter: @danmcgowan