Lawmakers approve NECAP, teacher eval bills to end session

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Two significant policies supported by Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist were dealt major setbacks Friday, as lawmakers passed bills to curb high-stakes testing and scale back the frequency of teacher evaluations.

Both pieces of legislation were approved late Friday as legislators scrambled to wrap up business on the final day of the 2014 legislative session. Gov. Lincoln Chafee must still sign them into law.

The testing bill prohibits the use of a standardized exam as part of the state’s high school graduation requirements until 2017, the first year the state will move away from the controversial NECAP exam in favor of a test more aligned with the Common Core State Standards.

“I am disappointed that the General Assembly has taken this step, particularly in light of the thousands of students who significantly improved their core mathematic skills as a result of this policy,” Gist said in a statement. “Student readiness for college, careers, and life remains our highest priority, and we will continue working with our school districts to ensure that all students receive the instruction, support, and resources they need to prepare them for success.”

The evaluation bill would only require teachers rated effective or highly effective to be evaluated every two or three years, respectively, rather than every single year. Although she had previously expressed concern with a bill that would have further limited the frequency of teacher evaluation, Gist said she was pleased an agreement could be reached.

“While I believe in the importance of annual evaluations for all teachers and school leaders, I also recognize the need to make the evaluation process more streamlined,” Gist said. “I hope and expect that, even without formal annual evaluations, all teachers will continue to receive feedback and support as they work to improve their professional practices.”

As the education commissioner, Gist has long been linked to the two policies, even though Rhode Island approved its high school graduation requirements long before she arrived in the state in 2009. She has been a stanch advocate of annual teacher evaluations. The passage of both bills will likely be seen as a significant blow to her efforts to raise standards in the state.

A spokesman for Gist said the commissioner was out of town for Friday’s session. But her presence probably wouldn’t have made a difference on either bill given the overwhelming support in both legislative chambers.

Rep: Test is ‘blatantly flawed’

The testing bill was thought to be dead in recent weeks after House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said he was opposed to changing the state’s high school graduation requirements, but those close to him say his stance changed after he learned more about the policy’s waiver process.

A Providence Journal report last week that chronicled a Barrington special needs student’s difficulty obtaining a waiver after she did not meet the graduation requirement led Mattiello to bring the bill to a vote, according to spokesman Larry Berman.

Rep. Gregg Amore, D-East Providence, said it was legislature’s job to take up the bill because the state Board of Education did not move to change the policy this year.

“When a policy becomes so blatantly flawed and where there is not enough movement by the people who are hired to make those decisions, we must act to fix that flawed policy,” Amore said. “In my view this bill does just that.”

The bill’s approval signals the end of the NECAP exam for the state’s graduation policy because the state plans to use the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test beginning with the class of 2017. Students across the state took the PARCC’s field test – a trial run – earlier this year.

Beginning with the class of 2014, students were 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 failed to earn a qualifying score during their junior year had the opportunity to retake the exam twice during their senior year and were eligible to take several alternate tests in order to meet the requirement.

Students only needed to show improvement when they retook the exam, meaning they could still have graduated without showing partial proficiency on the test. School districts also offered waivers for students who were admitted to a four-year college. Providence amended its graduation policy to allow more than 200 students who didn’t meet the NECAP goal to earn their diploma.

Rep. Maria Cimini, D-Providence, said she was proud to support the moratorium.

“Children are not widgets and being able to fill in the right bubbles does not make a great adult,” Cimini said.

Although the testing moratorium won overwhelming support, Reps. Joy Hearn, D-Barrington, Patricia Morgan, R-West Warwick, and Michael Marcello, D-Scituate, all attempted to convince their colleagues to oppose the bill.

“This chamber is not a school committee,” Marcello said during his floor speech.

A ‘reasoned and rational approach’

The evaluation bill that was approved was slightly watered down from a version the House approved earlier this month. That bill would have limited evaluations for teachers rated effective or highly effective to once every three and four years, respectively. The new bill gave more freedom to school administrators to conduct reviews and requires evaluations for effective or highly effective teachers to take place every two and three years, respectively.

All told, 95% of the state’s 14,260 public school teachers were rated “effective” or “highly effective” during the 2012-13 school year 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 by RIDE.

Tim Duffy, executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, praised lawmakers for their “reasoned and rational approach to the issue.” Duffy was opposed to the original bill.

“In doing so they have reinstated a principal’s prerogative to observe classrooms, agreed to RIDE’s cyclical model and restored the right of school committees to negotiate additional evaluation criteria,” Duffy said.

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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