ACLU Leaves Testing Controversy for Another Day

Jul 25, 2013

The lawsuit filed against the Rhode Island Board of Education by the American Civil Liberties Union does not address the merits of a new test-based graduation requirement, focusing instead on a procedural issue. The ACLU’s local director, Steve Brown, said he is still hoping the board will reconsider the testing policy and move to reverse it.

The complaint alleges the board failed to properly respond to a petition from the ACLU and several other groups seeking to stop the policy, which requires students to show partial proficiency on tests of Math and English to earn a diploma.

According to the ACLU, the full board should have voted within 30 days to either deny the petition or consider it. Instead, Board Chair Eva-Marie Mancuso sent a letter denying the petition but suggesting the board would likely take up the testing issue at a future date.

Providence high school senior Priscilla Rivera, who spoke in support of the lawsuit, said she is one of 4,000 students who failed to meet the testing bar. She will re-take the test in October, but Rivera said students like her are suffering while the board waits to take action.

“When I found out that I did not score high enough to graduate it haunted me,” Rivera said. “I couldn’t concentrate in any of my classes.”  She later added that college now feels like a distant dream.

“If you’ve been to college you remember how stressful the college application process was. Now imagine how much harder it would be if you weren’t sure you would be allowed to graduate,” Rivera said.

East Greenwich parent Jean Ann Guliano joined Rivera in urging the Board of Education to revisit the testing policy. Her son, a high school student, has special needs, and she questioned the validity of the state test, the New England Common Assessment Program, for all students.

“There are a questions about the validity for any child who that has any type of language-based limitation.” Guliano said. “Yet this is the test that’s going to determine one of the most important milestones of their life.”

State officials declined to comment on the lawsuit, but they have defended the testing policy in the past, arguing that students can apply for waivers or submit alternative tests to show proficiency. State Education Commissioner Deborah Gist has often pointed out that the real disservice to students is allowing them to leave high school with sub-par skills.

The new lawsuit will settle none of these disputes, although it may force the Board of Education to vote on whether to take up the testing issue. The complaint asks a judge to order the board to consider the ACLU’s petition in public. The board can vote either to deny the petition or to and initiate a process of public hearings to look at changing the graduation requirement.