40% of 11th graders at risk of not graduating

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – In 2005, when they were in the fourth grade, 25% of students in the class of 2014 scored “substantially below proficient” on the math section of the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP), the statewide standardized test given to students across the state.

Seven years later, the number of students from the same graduating class scoring in the NECAP’s lowest-performing category in math ballooned to 40%, according to a WPRI.com review of 2012 test scores released last week.

Now school officials across the state are on edge as they race to solve a math problem of their own. The class of 2014 is the first to fall under the state’s mandate requiring all students to show “partial proficiency” on the math and reading portions of the NECAP before receiving a diploma; meaning educators have roughly 17 months to help students improve their test scores or approximately 4,000 students may be forced to repeat the 12th grade.

“This is not something we were surprised about,” Patti DiCenso, a secondary school performance officer for Pawtucket schools, said. “This is not something we knew was going to happen last year. This goes back a few years. Are we frustrated? Absolutely. Are we concerned? Absolutely.”

At Shea High School, 68% of the 221 11th graders who took the NECAP last fall scored substantially below proficient on the math section of the test. At Tolman High School, 61% of the 233 students who took the math test received the lowest possible score.

WPRI.com’s analysis shows Pawtucket is not an outlier.

More than 80% of students at four Providence high schools—Alvarez, Central, Hope and Mount Pleasant— will have to improve their NECAP score by next year. At Central Falls High School, 70% of students have to re-take the test. In suburban Lincoln, 25% of students are in danger of not graduating.

For DiCenso, who served as the principal at Rogers High School in Newport for six years before moving to Pawtucket’s school district, the common denominator across the state is math. While the numbers of students in the class of 2014 scoring substantially below proficient in reading has dropped from 17% when they were in fourth grade to just 8% last year, the math figures nearly doubled.

DiCenso said educators across the state need to “get serious” about looking for early warning signals for students at risk of falling off track if test scores are going to improve.

“If you look at those math problems as a parent, you would want your kid to be able to do them,” she said. “They’re math problems that 11th graders should be able to do. But math is not just a problem in 11th grade.”

But for critics of the state’s new graduation requirements, the class of 2014 is simply being written off as collateral damage in the pursuit for higher standards.

“It seems like the whole approach to the problem is that we are punishing individual students for a largely systemic problem,” Aaron Regunberg, the co-founder of the Providence Student Union activist group, told WPRI.com.

Regunberg said his organization supports higher standards for graduation, but a lack of resources, a shift in education philosophies and the revolving door of superintendents in Providence have contributed to the class of 2014’s struggles.

The state’s two teachers’ unions, the National Education Association of Rhode Island and the American Federation of Teachers, have also spoken out against the new graduation requirements.

“We are opposed to reliance on a single test for determining a student’s future,” Robert Walsh, the executive director of the NEA, told WPRI.com. “We support the ongoing evaluation of student achievement based on multiple measures, including authentic assessments that are directly linked to the standards, curricula and materials teachers use.”

But while the debate over the state’s graduation requirements is likely to continue over the next year, municipal and school officials said they are focused on helping both the class of 2014 and all future students improve on the NECAP.

“I’m planning to have a conversation with our superintendent because I want to know what it is we could better,” Central Falls Mayor James Diossa told WPRI.com. “Whether it’s more after-school programs or more support staff.”

In Providence, school officials have launched a graduation awareness campaign that maps out a strategy for its 11th graders to improve their NECAP scores and students. The plan includes:

  • more rigorous academic interventions;
  • the creation of personalized graduation plans for all students;
  • a community engagement strategy that will promote better school attendance;
  • and policy development that will engage stakeholders in the city’s graduation policy.

Down the line, Superintendent Dr. Susan Lusi said the district would like to look at more block scheduling and longer school days, an issue that would have to be discussed during union contract negotiations.

“This district has been at this a long time, but we still have a lot of work to do,” Lusi said.

DiCenso said the key is to give students hope that improving on the NECAP is an achievable goal. Those who scored substantially below proficient on either math or reading have the opportunity to retake the test in October and again in the spring.

“This is different than saying ‘you failed a test, it’s over,’” she said. “It’s about growth. It’s not as daunting when you look at it like that.”

Both Lusi and DiCenso agreed that immediacy of the graduation requirements has created a stronger sense of urgency to show results.

“We need to get serious about this and make sure our students graduate,” DiCenso said. “I’m not retiring until we do.”

Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Twitter: @danmcgowan

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