A one-stop guide to Rhode Island’s 2016 PARCC scores

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Another school year, another batch of poor test scores for Rhode Island.

The latest results for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exam released Thursday showed the state made some progress compared with last year’s scores, but the vast majority of students still aren’t meeting expectations in math or English.

Here’s an overview. (You can view the complete district-by-district PARCC results here.)

*Remember, the math and English language arts (ELA) sections of the PARCC are each scored on a scale that ranges from 650 to 850, with student performance broken down into five levels. Level one means they did not meet grade-level expectations; level two means they partially met expectations; level three means they approached expectations; level four means they met expectations; and level five means they exceeded expectations. Students who achieve levels four or five are considered proficient.

Scores are up slightly, but most students still aren’t proficient in math or English.
Let’s start with the good news. Every single grade level (that means students from grades three through 10) made improvements in math, with 30% of all students showing proficiency. On the ELA side, about 38% of all students who took the exam showed proficiency. At the school district level, 14 districts showed statistically significant improvements in the number of students reaching proficiency in ELA, while Cranston was the only district that showed a statistically significant decrease in performance. (Cranston’s drop-off can largely be attributed to lower high school scores.) Twenty-one districts saw large spikes in math proficiency, and no district took a statistically significant step backward. Of course, when you consider that 75% of students across the state failed to meet or exceed expectations in math and 64% weren’t proficient in ELA in 2015, one could argue that state had nowhere to go but up. The state still saw about 17.5% of students in ELA and 16% of students in math fall into level one, which means they aren’t meeting grade level expectations. For his part, Education Commissioner Ken Wagner said it’s too soon to say whether a five-point overall increase in math and a two-point increase in ELA is a trend, but he suggested the results “show we are on the right path.”

Seven schools were 70% proficient in both math and English.
Call them Rhode Island’s shining stars. Barrington Middle School, Nayatt Elementary in Barrington, Peace Dale Elementary, Matunuck Elementary and Kingston Hill Academy in South Kingstown, Community Elementary School in Cumberland and Melrose Elementary in Jamestown were the highest-performers in the state. (Six of those are traditional public schools and Kingston Hill is a K-5 public charter school.) As for high schools, East Greenwich was the only school where at least 60% of students were proficient in both math and ELA.

The biggest improvements are coming at the elementary school level.
If you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. Rhode Island adopted the Common Core State Standards six years ago as a way to establish basic criteria for what students should know at each grade level, which means elementary school students have spent their entire education careers learning within those confines. The PARCC is aligned with the Common Core, so it’s not all that surprising that math scores in grades three through five went up seven or eight points. ELA scores were also up across the board at the elementary school level, though they didn’t spike quite as much as the math performance. Of course, the overall scores for our youngest students still aren’t anything to brag about. Only about 44% of third graders scored proficiently in math (that’s the best of any grade in the state) and only 41.5% of fifth graders were proficient in ELA.

PARCC chart

Rhode Island still has massive achievement gaps.
If you thought the state’s overall proficiency rates were low, wait until you see the challenges the urban schools face. In Central Falls, Pawtucket, Providence and Woonsocket (the so-called urban ring), only 15% of students met or exceeded expectations in math and 20% were proficient in ELA. Fewer than 2% of the students at Mount Pleasant High, Alvarez High, 360 High and Hope High in Providence were proficient in math and only 1.7% of students at Tolman High in Pawtucket were proficient. Only 16% of low-income students statewide were proficient in math, compared with 43% of non-low-income students. Only 14% of African-American students and 15% of Latino students were proficient in math, compared with 38% of white students. On the bright side, nearly every single student group – with the exception of students with disabilities – did show improvements compared to 2015.

Not all charter schools are created equal.
Of the roughly 82,000 students who took at least one part of the PARCC last year, only about 4% came from charter schools. But considering all the attention the charters get each year, it’s important to monitor their results. If you mush all the charters together, 41% of students were proficient in ELA (slightly better than the state average) and 29% were proficient in math (slightly worse than average). But when you take a closer look, it’s clear the charter sector in Rhode Island benefits from a few outliers. For example, Kingston Hill Academy in South Kingstown is among the best elementary schools in Rhode Island. At Blackstone Valley Prep, elementary and middle school students are significantly outperforming the state average. One story to keep an eye on is Achievement First in Providence. The sample size for the new mayoral academy is tiny, but 76% of third graders at the school were proficient in math. Commissioner Wagner said the state is committed to monitoring the results of charters and noted that PARCC scores will be among the factors considered as they seek charter renewals from the Board of Education in the coming years.

PARCC gaps

RIDE doesn’t believe the poor results are a mistake.
When he spoke with reporters Wednesday, Commissioner Wagner said it is “not possible” that the PARCC is simply too difficult for Rhode Island students. He noted the scores are remarkably similar to results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which is often referred to as the “nation’s report card.” For example, about 37% of the state’s fourth graders reached proficiency in math on the PARCC, which mirrors the 2015 NAEP results. About 41% of fourth graders reached proficiency in ELA in PARCC, compared with 40% on the NAEP in 2015. And while Wagner acknowledged that it’s not easy to determine the level of effort students displayed while taking the PARCC – there are always going to be kids who use the “when in doubt, choose ‘C’” approach – he said he is confident the results are accurate.

The opt-out movement appears to be dying out.
PARCC participation jumped from around 90% in both math and English in 2015 to 96% in 2016, which puts the state above the 95% participation threshold the federal government requires states to hit in order to be eligible for Title I federal dollars. (Commissioner Wagner claims the state would have been at risk of losing $200 million in federal money if it continued to fall below 95%.) There were still a handful of schools that saw low participation rates, particularly in East Providence where Riverside Middle, Edward Martin Middle and East Providence High were all below 80%. Other schools falling below 80% participation were Hope High and William B. Cooley High in Providence as well as Pawtucket’s Jacqueline M. Walsh High School.

We’re still waiting on PARCC scores in Massachusetts.
We should know more about how our neighbors to the north scored on PARCC by the end of September, but it’s a safe bet to assume they’ll continue to be among the highest-performing states in the country. (Only about half of Massachusetts communities take the PARCC, while the others use the MCAS, the state’s own exam created back in 1993.) When it comes to states that have already released their PARCC scores, we know New Jersey outscored Rhode Island at every grade level in both math and ELA. Rhode Island did outperform Maryland in ELA in grades three and eight and the two states posted identical math proficiency levels in the third grade.

Individual student scores will be mailed within a month.
State education officials say every school district will receive individual student PARCC scores by next week and those results will be sent to parents at some point in September.

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

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