12 things to know about Rhode Island’s new plan for improving schools

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island education officials are getting closer to submitting a plan to the U.S. Department of Education outlining how the state will transition to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the federal education law that Congress passed in 2015 to replace No Child Left Behind.

If all goes well, the R.I. Department of Education (RIDE) could learn if its proposal for implementing ESSA is approved before the end of the year.

So what’s included in the plan? Eyewitness News read the state’s 89-page draft plan cover to cover in order to learn how it will affect students and teachers in the coming years. (You can read the entire proposal here.) Here’s an overview.

Rhode Island has no choice but to submit a plan.
While ESSA received bipartisan praise for giving states more flexibility to craft school accountability systems and standards, the law still requires them to submit comprehensive plans to the federal government. RIDE officials have spent most of the last year holding public forums and meeting with stakeholders throughout the state to discuss how Rhode Island will make the transition. At least a dozen states have already submitted their ESSA plans to the U.S. Department of Education, but Rhode Island is planning to turn in its plan by September. For the next month – June 1 until June 30 – the state will accept public comment on the proposed plan. (You can email ESSA@ride.ri.gov to weigh in.) In July, RIDE officials will review the public comments and incorporate any changes they feel are necessary. For the month of August, the proposal will sit with Gov. Gina Raimondo’s office, where more changes could be made. The goal is to submit a finalized proposal by Sept. 18. The U.S. Department of Education will then have 120 days to approve the plan.

The state is setting lofty goals.
It wasn’t that long ago that No Child Left Behind set a goal of having every student in the country performing at grade level on state standardized exams by 2014. But while many states made gains, no state really came close to reaching 100% proficiency. Nationally, only 40% of fourth-grade students and 33% of eighth graders were at or above proficiency in math in 2015, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Now Rhode Island is mapping out extremely ambitious goals for ESSA. State officials want 75% of all students to be proficient in math and English language arts (ELA) by 2025. If you look at PARCC results from last year, 38% of Rhode Island students were considered proficient in ELA and 31% were proficient in math. In the plan, officials acknowledge the goals call for “an increase in proficiency rates that is larger than Rhode Island achieved” between 2008 and 2015. Because the baseline rates rely on PARCC scores, the state is planning to reevaluate its goals after it begins using a new standardized exam during the 2017-18 school year. For graduation rates, the state is seeking to reach 95% by 2025. This is probably more realistic than the proficiency goals, but it’s hardly a guarantee. The graduation rate in the class of 2016 was 85%, but in order to gain 10 percentage points by 2025, the state will need to see major improvements among Latino students (currently a 79% graduation rate), poor students (79%) and students with disabilities (67%).

Yes, standardized tests are still a requirement under ESSA.
All public school students in grades three through eight must take a standardized test each year, a policy that was rolled over to ESSA from No Child Left Behind. High school students are required to be tested at least once between their freshman and senior years. Rhode Island will use the PSAT and SAT to track the progress of high schoolers. (Remember, the PSAT and SAT exams are now free of charge to families and administered in school rather than on Saturdays.) For younger students, Rhode Island is moving away from the PARCC exam in favor of the Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System (RICAS), a test similar to the one administered in Massachusetts. Results for the PSAT, SAT and RICAS will be broken into four performance levels, with level three indicating proficiency. (The exact cutline scores aren’t available yet.)

Schools can be penalized by students “opting out” of testing.
ESSA requires at least 95% of students in every school that administers a standardized exam to actually take the test. Schools that fall below that threshold will be publicly identified by the state and will be required to “submit a plan to engage their community to build understanding of and support for participating in state testing.” Any school that falls below 95% participation will all be ineligible to be labeled a five-star school. (More on the star program below.)

Rhode Island will rank schools using a star system.
Some states ranks schools A-F. Some use a 1-5 system. In the past Rhode Island has used a classification system that broke schools into six categories: commended, leading, typical, warning, focus and priority. Under Rhode Island’s ESSA plan, schools will be ranked using a 1-5 star system. The rubric the state is following assigns points for five separate categories: achievement in ELA and math; growth in ELA and math; English language proficiency; graduation rate (for high schools only); and exceeding expectation on ELA and math as well as having low chronic absenteeism (for students AND teachers) and suspension rates.

Chronically low-performing schools will be required to make changes.
Just like No Child Left Behind, ESSA requires states to publicly identify its lowest performing 5% of schools and take action to improve them. The lowest-performing schools will be one-star schools with low proficiency rates on standardized tests and low growth rates. (In other words, struggling schools that aren’t seeing improvements.) The state will initially identify its lowest-performing schools as needing “comprehensive support and improvement” during the 2018-19 school year. For schools that are unable to meet exit criteria for comprehensive intervention within four years, the state will require them to undergo a “school redesign.” Those models will include: Empowerment, which is designed to give more autonomy to principals and teachers and has already been approved by the General Assembly; Restart, which allows a school to be reopened by a charter management organization or another state-approved managing entity and has already been an option for struggling schools; Small Schools of Choice, a new idea that reorganizes big schools into smaller ones – approximately 100 students per grade – and emphasizes personalized learning for students; LEA Proposed Redesign, which will allow school districts – LEAs, or local education agencies – to design their own alternative model; and Closure, which shutters a failing school and relocates students to schools that are not identified as needing intervention.

Already-struggling schools aren’t getting pass.
Schools that are newly identified as in need of comprehensive support and improvement will have four years to make improvements before the state moves forward with any of the redesign options. But schools that were labeled “priority” schools in the existing system will have to move quicker. Rhode Island will use the old classification system for one more school year before it moves to the star system. Any school identified as priority will only have two years to make improvements before the state requires them to select a redesign model. Right now, there are 20 priority schools. One way the state is attempting to improve its classification system is by giving schools a better chance to show they’re making strides. A common complaint from school leaders under the old system was that once you became a focus or priority school, it was nearly impossible to get out from under those labels.

Some school districts will be required to create community advisory boards.
Any district with at least one school targeted for comprehensive support and improvement must create an advisory board comprised of stakeholders that “best represent their community and will successfully leverage the broader community to help support and advise the school improvement process.” The idea is to give community members a seat at the table when it comes to improving schools rather than simply allowing a school board and district officials to make all the decisions. This idea probably needs to be fleshed out a little more. Nothing in the plan requires a specific number of members and there is no recommendation for how often meetings should be held. It’s also unclear if board meetings would be subject to the state’s open meetings law. Districts will also be allowed to apply for a waiver to avoid establishing an advisory board if they can prove they have a different way of engaging the community when it comes to the school improvement process.

Every school will be given a report card.
Think of it more like the back of a baseball card. Schools will have everything from their vital statistics – like overall test scores and absenteeism rates – to more in-depth information like performance by subgroups, growth and culture and climate indicators in report cards that are made available to the public. The ultimate goal is to take what is already available on RIDE’s InfoWorks website and make it more accessible with even more data.

A lot of focus is being placed on English language learners.
This makes sense considering the way Rhode Island’s population is shifting. While only 8% of students statewide are learning English as a second language in the current school year, the number is on the rise. For example, 26% of students in Central Falls and 25% of Providence students are learning English as a second language this year. Rhode Island’s plan seeks to establish a model that “reflects the true trajectory of language development in our students.” The goal is to take into account a student’s beginning level of proficiency and then track progress. The state is also pledging to offer more Spanish translation options on standardized exams in grades three through eight.

The state is crafting a talent management system for teachers.
ESSA does not require states to develop comprehensive teacher evaluation systems, but it does require states to address some of their most pressing equity issues. For example, Rhode Island has noticed that its highest poverty and highest minority schools tend to have more inexperienced or unqualified teachers, support professionals and leaders, compared with lower poverty and lowest minority schools. Middle schools also tend to have less experienced faculties than elementary schools and high schools. The state is seeking to create a talent management system that “will engage all levels of the educational system to attract, prepare, recruit, develop and retain teachers and leaders, with focused support at high-poverty, high-need schools and districts.”

The federal funding system is changing.
All of the state’s ideas are nice, but without money to implement changes, nothing will be easy. ESSA gives states flexibility for dividing up and distributing Title I funding, which is earmarked to benefit districts with high percentages of lower-income families and is the largest pot of federal education dollars. Rhode Island is planning to split its federal money between formula funding and competitive grants, which is pretty similar to the way things have always been done. The big unknown nationally right now is whether the Trump administration and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos will seek to enact school reforms – like a voucher system – by tying new federal dollars to their agenda. That’s not a crazy thought: remember, the Obama administration did something similar with its Race to the Top program, which brought $75 million to Rhode Island.

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