Everything you need to know about Rhode Island’s 2017 PARCC scores

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The majority of public school students across Rhode Island still aren’t meeting expectations in math or English, according to the latest round of standardized test scores released Thursday by the R.I. Department of Education.

The overall results for the final year of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exam show students made few gains in 2017, but the number of high school students taking the PSAT and SAT spiked after the state made the tests free and allowed them to be administered in school.

So what do the latest test scores tell us? Here’s an overview. (You can view the complete school-by-school 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.

2017 was the last year of PARCC.
Before we even dig into the results, it’s worth recalling that Rhode Island is no longer using the PARCC exam. That means we only have three years of results, which really isn’t enough to analyze growth. Scores from the first year were probably artificially low, in part because students were adjusting to a new – computerized – exam. There was also a strong push in some communities to have students refuse to take the test in 2015. In the upcoming school year, students will move to the Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System (RICAS) for students in grades three through eight, and high school students will take the PSAT and SAT. (The state began administering the PSAT and SAT for free during the 2016-17 school.) We don’t know a lot about the RICAS yet, but it’s modeled after the well-known exam that students in Massachusetts take.

Statewide proficiency rates were flat.
The percentage of students in grades three through eight who met or exceeded expectations – known as the proficiency rate – in math or ELA didn’t move between 2016 and 2017. On the math side, the proficiency rate remains 33% and on ELA, it was 40%. When you look at average results on a grade-by-grade basis, the only statistically significant change over the last two years was a three-point drop in ELA proficiency among eighth-grade students, from 40.8% to 37.3%. Fifth-grade students had a 42.2% proficiency rate in ELA, the best of any grade. Mirroring a trend from the previous two years, the best-performing math students were in third grade, where 44.2% were proficient.

Poor performance is steady too.
This could be a little more alarming for educators. Aside from flat proficiency rates, Rhode Island hasn’t seen a significant drop in students who are only scoring in Levels 1 or 2 on the PARCC exam. In some cases, the numbers got slightly worse. In sixth grade, 34% of students either didn’t meet expectations or only partially met expectations on ELA, compared to 32% last year. Eighth-grade students dropped four percentage points to 39% at the two lowest levels of ELA. Math scores fared a little better, but there weren’t any statistically significant improvements in the percentage of students scoring at Levels 1 and 2.

Welcome to the 75% club.
Three elementary or middle schools in the state managed to have at least 75% of their students score proficiently on both the ELA and math sections of the PARCC: Rockwell Elementary School in Bristol, Melrose Elementary School in Jamestown and Kingston Hill Academy in South Kingstown. For ELA, Barrington Middle School, Community School in Cumberland and Wickford Middle School in North Kingstown all reached 75% proficiency or better. The only other school to hit 75% in math was Nayatt Elementary School in Barrington.

There were mixed results on the PSAT and SAT.
The 2016-17 school year was the first time high school students were allowed to take the PSAT and the SAT for free and during school. For the PSAT, 75% of 10th graders participated last year, with 56% of them reaching the college and career ready benchmark – 430 out of 760 –  on the evidence-based reading and writing section of the exam. On the math section, only 34% scored at least 480 to be considered college and career ready. Of the 79% of 11th graders who took the SAT exam, 56% scored at least 480 out of 800 to be college and career ready in reading and writing. For math, 34% scored at least 530 to hit the college and career ready benchmark. It’s likely the participation rate on both tests will continue to rise because the state will now be using the PSAT/SAT in high school to meet federal testing requirements.

Achievement gaps remain major sticking points.
White students (49% ELA, 40% math) continue to outperform their African-American (22% ELA, 15% math) and Hispanic (22% ELA, 16% math) counterparts throughout Rhode Island when it comes to meeting or exceeding expectations on both sections of the PARCC exam, while Asian students (50% ELA, 47% math) lead the way. In a sign of how much of an emphasis the test places on comprehension of English, students still learning the language were just 5% proficient in ELA and 7% proficient in math. Only 23% of low-income students met proficiency in ELA and 17% were proficient in math, while 55% of more affluent students met or exceeded expectations in ELA and 46% were proficient in math.

The “opt-out” movement has faded away.
During the first year of the PARCC exam, there were pockets of schools across the state that saw large numbers of students “opt out” of taking the exam. Those refusals were part of a nationwide rebellion against the Common Core State Standards and standardized testing, but the strategy never quite gained momentum in Rhode Island the way it did in other states. On the ELA part of PARCC, 50 of 57 districts – that includes traditional districts, charters and state-operated schools – saw at least 95% participation and 53 saw at least 95% participation in math. (Federal law requires 95% of test-eligible students in every school to take a standardized exam.) Of the traditional districts, Little Compton – 91% participation – was the only one to not hit 95% on both the math and ELA sections. On Block Island, only 88% took the ELA test, but 97% took the math part.

There are 100 eighth graders who are going to rule the world some day.
While most of the state was struggling on the math section of the PARCC exam, there were 100 eighth grade students who took either the geometry or algebra 2 test last year. Of the 97 eighth graders who took the geometry exam, a whopping 88% met proficiency. And all three of the algebra 2 test takers met or exceeded expectations. (It wasn’t clear from the results where those 100 students went to school. If you know any of them, email me: dmcgowan@wpri.com.)

Some schools have made huge strides.
The story of the year might be Coventry, which saw double-digit improvements in ELA compared to last year at Blackrock Elementary School, Washington Oak Elementary School and Alan Shawn Feinstein Middle School. In math, Western Coventry Elementary School jumped 14 percentages points. In Cranston, Edgewood Highland Elementary School grew its ELA proficiency by 29 percentage points. North Cumberland Middle School was up 12 points in ELA. Similarly, the Highlander Charter Elementary School, Narragansett Elementary School, George J. West Elementary School in Providence and Warwick’s Oakland Beach and Sherman Elementary Schools all saw big jumps in ELA proficiency. On the math side, Narragansett Elementary School was up 26 percentage points and North Smithfield Middle School went up 11 points. In Providence, Robert F. Kennedy Elementary School saw its math proficiency number increase by 21 percentage points.

Others took a step back.
When analyzing schools that makes gains or have setbacks, it’s important to understand that small schools can see big changes from year to year. (If a flu bug hits a school with only 100 test takers, scores could see big drops.) Still, it’s worth noting a few trends. Every elementary and middle school in Johnston saw their ELA scores drop by at least seven percentage points between 2016 and 2017 and none of them improved their math scores. At Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Providence, ELA scores fell 15 percentage points and math scores dropped 10 percentage points. While still outperforming other elementary schools in their respective communities, Achievement First Mayoral Academy and one of the Blackstone Valley Prep Elementary Schools each saw their math scores fall 16 percentage points.

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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