Everything RI parents should know about the state’s new graduation policy changes

This report was originally published on Aug. 29, 2016. It has been updated.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island officials have once again modified the state’s high school graduation policy, this time with the goal of recognizing students who shine on a standardized test or who show they’ve mastered a particular subject in the classroom.

So what will new diploma policy look like? Here’s an overview.

Students will have the chance to enhance their high school diplomas.
Think of the changes the way you think of the merit badges you can earn for completing certain tasks during Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Every high school student will still have the opportunity to obtain the standard high school diploma by passing 20 courses (that means four courses each in English and math, three classes each in science and social studies and another six courses determined by the local school district) as well as completing a senior project or portfolio, along with passing final exams. But beginning with the class of 2021 – kids starting 8th grade this year – students who earn high marks on a standardized exam would receive what the state is calling a “commissioner’s seal” for going above and beyond. Students would also have the chance to earn a “pathway endorsement” by demonstrating strength in a specific area of study. The current class of high school seniors now has the chance to earn a “biliteracy seal” if they show they are proficient in English and one other language.

The “commissioner’s seal” represents a grand compromise.
Let’s flash back to the 2013-14 school year, when leaders across the state panicked because as many as 40% of high school seniors were in danger of not graduating due to their performance on the NECAP exam. State lawmakers were so concerned that they actually passed a bill banning the use of a standardized exam as part of the state’s graduation requirements until at least 2017. That’s the environment Education Commissioner Ken Wagner encountered when he took over last year. The plan reward students who do meet proficiency on a standardized exam is clearly watered down from requiring all students to meet proficiency – or partial proficiency – on a test, but it also moves the “standards” ball further down the field than anyone else ever has in Rhode Island. And it will likely receive less interference from state lawmakers, many of whom aren’t education experts.

“Pathway endorsements” allow students to show what they’re good at.
With all the talk about students being more than just test scores, the “pathway endorsement” is designed to allow kids to show a little depth. In Scouts, that means proving you can cook or swim. In school, that could mean excelling in business or STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) courses. The goal is to allow students to not just pursue their interests, but also be rewarded for succeeding in those courses. It remains unclear exactly how the endorsements will work as it will largely be left up to individual districts to craft these policies.

Some of this has been tried in Rhode Island before.
Well, sort of. In 2010 and early 2011, former Commissioner Deborah Gist was pushing hard for a three-tiered high school diploma system that was tied to performance on a standardized test. Under that plan, students who scored high on the test would have earned an “honors” diploma, students who showed proficiency would have earned a “regents” diploma, and students who scored partially proficient would have earned a “Rhode Island” diploma. Critics argued the proposal would have disproportionally affected students from urban districts and Gist ended up scrapping it entirely. Wagner is adamant that the state is not creating a tiered system – “the diploma is the diploma,” he says – but he also acknowledges it’s entirely possible employers or colleges will keep an eye on the badges students earned on their diploma.

Commissioner Wagner thinks the testing seal could hold districts more accountable.
Here’s the reality education officials would face in Rhode Island if they were to implement a high-stakes test: If you set the bar too high, you’re either going to have thousands of fifth-year seniors or the legislature is going to step in and give the kids a pass. Take a look at this year’s PARCC results. Let’s pretend all 10th-grade students who reached Level 3 (approached expectations), Level 4 (met expectations), or Level 5 (exceeded expectations) would be eligible for a diploma. On ELA alone, that would leave 50% of Rhode Island students in danger of not graduating. Another option could be to set the bar extraordinarily low – as in, participation-is-good-enough low. If you do that, Wagner argues, “you’ve let down another generation of students.” (Yes, Massachusetts has MCAS, but the graduation requirement was phased in over 10 years and state officials stuck with their school reform plans; Rhode Island has not been nearly as consistent.) Still, Commissioner Wagner is making it clear he believes having a “commissioner’s seal” could put pressure on individual districts to raise the bar. In fact, he isn’t ruling out implementing requirements for districts to improve their seal percentages each year, similar to the way a district might be asked to improve their graduation rates. None of those plans are in place yet, but Wagner appears to see district accountability as a backdoor way of raising student test scores.

PARCC won’t be the only test used for the “commissioner’s seal.”
Students will have a menu of standardized exams to choose from to show they deserve a “commissioner’s seal.” Aside from the PARCC, Wagner has mentioned the PSAT or SAT – both of which will be given to students in school and at no cost beginning this year – as well as the ACT and Advanced Placement exams as possible tests. It wouldn’t be shocking to see the Accuplacer assessment or the ASVAB military exam added to the list as well. The state still has to determine cut scores – the minimum score required to earn the seal – for any test that will be used. Remember, when officials were planning to use the NECAP as a graduation requirement, students only had to show partial proficiency in order to be eligible to graduate. That would mean Level 3 on the PARCC exam.

Testing can be used as a graduation requirement this year.
That’s right. Even though the state wants to give a “commissioner’s seal” to students who show proficiency on a standardized exam during the class of 2021, nothing is stopping school districts from at least requiring participation on those tests this year. In Barrington and Bristol-Warren, students are required to take the exam as part of their local graduation requirements. Chariho is taking it a step further. In that district, students can use a variety of exams, but they have to reach certain scores to be eligible for a diploma. For PARCC, that means reaching Level 3 or above on both math and English in the 9th or 10th grade. They can also hit certain scores on AP exams, PSAT, SAT, ACT, Accuplacer and ASVAB.

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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