Gist concerned RI has ‘lost our sense of urgency’ on education reform

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist said Friday she is concerned “we’ve lost our sense of urgency” when it comes to improving schools, but stopped short of placing the blame on local school districts or state lawmakers.

In her first interview since Providence granted more than 200 waivers to allow students who have not met the state goal on the NECAP exam to graduate and the House of Representatives approved a bill limiting teacher evaluations, Gist said she would be “really concerned as a state if we start to turn around from some of the progress we have made.”

Gist indicated that every individual school district has the autonomy to make high school graduation decisions, but said those decisions should be “in the best interest of students.” Providence officials said they did not consult with Gist before changing the city’s diploma policy.

“The spirit of the policy is: do these students have math or reading skills at 9th or 10th grade level at minimum?” Gist told “Yes or no? That’s what was expected and it’s absolutely up to everyone to make those decisions about whether that’s the case.”

The Providence School Board voted Tuesday to allow current high school seniors who have scored “equal to or higher than the lowest passing score of any other student that met the [NECAP] requirement by showing progress toward proficiency” to receive a diploma even if they haven’t met the state’s goals.

Rhode Island has ‘successfully implemented our diploma system’

Beginning with the current crop of high school seniors, students are required to score at least a 2 (of 4) on the math and English sections of the NECAP in order to be eligible for a diploma. Those who fail to earn a qualifying score during their junior year have the opportunity to retake the exam twice during their senior year and are eligible to take several alternate tests in order to meet the requirement.

Students only need to show improvement when they retake the exam, meaning they could still graduate without showing partial proficiency on the test. Providence’s new policy grants a waiver to more than 200 students who took the NECAP three times in the last 20 months and didn’t earn a 2 or show statistically significant growth on the exam.

As it stands now, 92% of the class of 2014 statewide has met the NECAP requirement, passed an alternate test or received a graduation waiver, according to the Rhode Island Department of Education. In Providence, about 30% of the 855 who did not score a 2 on the math section of the test and were still enrolled in school at the end of April were still at risk of not graduating before the waiver policy was approved.

Gist said she is confident the state has “successfully implemented our diploma system” and credited other urban school districts such as Pawtucket and Central Falls with coming up with plans to address their students’ poor performances on their first try at the NECAP in October 2012.

Still, the commissioner acknowledged that her office has received a lot of feedback from school districts and said one change she hopes to make next year will clarify expectations for parents of students taking the test. She said she plans to continue to listen to school departments for suggestions about other improvements that should be made to the state graduation policy.

‘Absolute distraction’

Although Gist has been criticized for allowing districts to approve waivers for some students, she said that it is an “absolute misunderstanding” that the decision was a “reaction to the problem.” She said the waiver option has been in place since 2011.

The state has had a graduation policy in place since 2003 and added the testing requirement in 2008.

The policy has come under fire over the last year, with students complaining about their anxiety over whether they’ll be eligible to graduate and activists and lawmakers questioning whether the NECAP is the appropriate exam to use for the state’s diploma policy. The state Senate has passed legislation that would place a moratorium on the use of standardized testing for graduation purposes until 2017, but House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello opposes the bill.

“We have an incredibly urgent task to work on together,” Gist said. “When we get caught up in conversations about tests and whether they’re fair or not fair and things that are just an absolute distraction, what we lose is the real conversation.”

She continued “The real conversation is: do we, as a state, think that students should have 9th and 10th grade skills at minimum in reading and math? I think everyone would answer that question as yes.”

Bill ‘eliminates the evaluation of teachers’

On teacher evaluations, Gist expressed more frustration.

House lawmakers voted Tuesday to limit evaluations for teachers considered “effective” and “highly effective” to once every three years and once every four years, respectively. The currently policy requires teachers to be evaluated every year.

During the 2012-13 school year, 95% of the state’s 14,260 public school teachers were rated “effective” or “highly effective” while fewer than 1% of educators were labeled “ineffective,” a rating that could trigger a loss of certification if the teacher does not improve over the course of several years, according to a report released last year by the state.

At the same time, 66% of building administrators admitted in an end of the year survey that they assigned an inflated rating to teachers, which the report called a “powerful reminder of the strong cultural forces” in schools that make it difficult for evaluators to offer honest scores.

“What the bill does is it essentially eliminates the evaluation of teachers and I think it’s incredibly unfortunate,” Gist said.

The Senate has not yet taken up the legislation, but its sponsor is Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin.

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

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