NECAP, teacher eval bills to dominate final day of legislative session

The Rhode Island State House.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Two bills that would dramatically change education policy in Rhode Island – and send shudders through the school reform community – remain in play heading into the final day of the legislative session.

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said Thursday legislation that would place a moratorium on the use of standardized tests for the state’s high school graduation policy until 2017 and a bill to limit the frequency of teacher evaluations could still be voted on before lawmakers wrap up the session Friday evening.

Mattiello’s comments came shortly after the House adjourned with plenty of business still on the table, guaranteeing at least one more day before lawmakers turn their sights toward their re-election campaigns.

The hold on the testing component of Rhode Island’s high school graduation requirements would effectively end the use of the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) exam for that purpose because the state is switching to a new test that is more aligned with the Common Core State Standards.

The bill has been percolating on Smith Hill for several months – the Senate has already approved it – but until recently Mattiello was considered the primary barrier preventing its passage. Those close to the speaker said that began to change as he learned more about the waiver process for those who haven’t earned a qualifying score on the NECAP. House Spokesman Larry Berman said Mattiello was moved by a Providence Journal story published last week that chronicled a Barrington student’s struggles to obtain a graduation waiver.

Mattiello’s chamber has already approved legislation that would only require teachers rated effective or highly effective to be evaluated every three or four years, respectively, but advocates on both sides said a slightly watered down version of the bill will be discussed Friday. A report issued by the Rhode Island Department of Education last year showed that 95% of teachers were rated effective or highly effective in 2013.

Passage of either bill would be viewed as victory for teachers’ unions and other activists in their five-year battle with Education Commissioner Deborah Gist, who has garnered national praise for her efforts to raise standards in Rhode Island, but has struggled to earn the trust of classroom teachers. Her contract has already been extended once by the state Board of Education, but is scheduled to expire next June.

In recent weeks, Gist has expressed concern that Rhode Island has “lost our sense of urgency” around improving schools, while openly opposing both the NECAP moratorium and teacher evaluation bills. She said she would be “really concerned as a state if we start to turn around from some of the progress we have made.”

The commissioner appears to have dodged a third blow late in the legislative session, as lawmakers removed language from a bill that would have placed a short-term moratorium on the opening of new charter schools in the state. Although the bill was recommitted to the House Finance Committee, it is expected that a study commission to review charter school funding will be approved Friday without the moratorium language.

Another key education matter to watch Friday will be the status of Board of Education Chairwoman Eva-Marie Mancuso, whose reappointment was continued by the Senate Education Committee. Several committee members have expressed concern about the use of standardized testing for the state’s high school graduation policy.

Mancuso has long supported the NECAP and helped negotiate Gist’s contract extension last year.

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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