Gist: 1,800 12th graders still at risk of not graduating

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – At least 19% of the students who took the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) exam last year and are still enrolled in school remain at risk of not receiving a high school diploma, according to the latest round of test results released Friday.

That means more than 1,800 current high school seniors must show improvement when they take the exam for a third time next month, the Rhode Island Department of Education said.

Of the remaining students in that cohort, 73% have scored at least partially proficient on the math or English sections of the test and are on track to graduate later this year. Another 8% of students are no longer enrolled in Rhode Island schools, meaning they could have graduated early, dropped out, moved to another state or died.

“I’m really proud of our 12th graders,” Education Commissioner Deborah Gist said during a morning press conference. “They’re trailblazers in many cases.”

The commissioner’s office was unable to provide the percentage of current high school seniors that need to retake the NECAP for a third time.

Although the state’s current high school graduation requirements were approved 10 years ago, 2014 is the first year where a student’s diploma is partially tied to a standardized test.

High school seniors must score at least a 2 on the math and English portions of the NECAP in order to be eligible to graduate. Students who fail to earn a qualifying score during their junior year have the opportunity to retake the exam twice during their senior years 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.

The 19% of students still at risk of not graduating in the class of 2014 will have the opportunity to take a condensed version of the NECAP test. Gist stressed that the test will not necessarily be easier, but it will not include some of the most difficult questions on the exam.

Students only need to show improvement when they retake the exam, meaning they could still graduate without showing partial proficiency on the test. Gist has also recommended that school districts adopt graduation waiver policies for students who are accepted to a four-year college even if they do not earn a qualifying score on the NECAP.

“I think we will see more waivers this year than in the future” Board of Education Chairwoman Eva Marie Mancuso said during the press conference.

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.

During the press conference, Gist highlighted the state’s rising graduation rate – now at 80% – but acknowledged that more improvements are needed when it comes to the NECAP exam.

For the class of 2015 – juniors who took the NECAP for the first time in October – 36% of students still will need to retake the test again as seniors in order to be eligible for a diploma. Next year, the state will also replace the NECAP with the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness and College and Careers (PARCC) exam, but those students who are required to take the NECAP will be given that opportunity.

Larry Purtill, the president of the National Education Association Rhode Island, said he support raising standards but questioned whether it is appropriate to use the NECAP graduation requirement for the current class of high school seniors.

“There was an improvement so let’s look at what districts improved,” Purtill said. “I’m still concerned that now they’re stressed to take another one [or] they have to take an alternative test [or} there’s a waiver. It’s just too much.”

Sam Foer, a member of the student activist group Providence Student Union, said the increased focus on the NECAP has still not made students “more college and career ready.”

“For the thousands of students who have been pulled out of class to do test prep, pulled out of after school programs to do test prep, pulled out of summer programs to do drill, kill bubble-fill, has it been worth it to have a minority answer a few more questions right?” Foer said in a prepared statement.

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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