A Few Thoughts on the Latest NECAP Controversy

Jan 13, 2014

First of all, I go away for a family emergency, and what happens? News, that’s what!

The Department of Education announced at the end of last week that some high school students will no longer have to pass the standardized test known as the New England Common Assessment Program, or NECAP, to earn a high school diploma. The exception applies to students who get into colleges with non-open enrollment.  

So, in other words, if you get into a competitive college, the test-based part of the state’s graduation requirement will be waived.

State education officials say they made the change, in part, after hearing from some colleges that students who had not met the testing requirement were having difficulty securing financial aid.

It should be said that this is not the only exception to the testing policy. Students can also get waivers by submitting alternate assessments and by re-taking the NECAP and showing improvement. And the bar for passing the NECAP is relatively low. Students need only achieve a score that indicates partial proficiency in 11th grade English and mathematics.

Still, some 4,000 high school seniors had to prepare and then retake NECAP in October, and they are still waiting to find out their scores. Anecdotal reports from some students suggest that the uncertainty may discourage some students from applying to college.

The change in policy also raises serious questions about the utility of NECAP as a measure of college readiness, which ostensibly is the goal of the test-based graduation requirement. The Rhode Island Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has been fighting to roll back the NECAP requirement, was quick to label the policy change as an acknowledgement that NECAP is not a useful indicator.

In a press release, the ACLU’s Steve Brown posed the question this way:

“If the whole point of requiring students to get a certain score on the NECAP was allegedly to determine whether they were college-ready, how can RIDE now say that if you are accepted into college, it doesn’t matter what your NECAP score is?”

Brown goes on to call the NECAP requirement punitive and arbitrary.

The bigger questions, in my mind, are how many students are likely to be affected by the policy change, and what does it mean when students unable to show even partial proficiency on a state test are still able to get into college? Are the state’s standards out of synch with college standards for admission? Is it fair to require high school students heading to community colleges or the workplace to meet a higher graduation bar than their peers?

It seems unlikely that most students accepted at competitive colleges would really struggle to meet the test-based graduation requirement, either by passing NECAP or by qualifying for a waiver in some other way. Yet, if that is the case, why does the state feel it is necessary to add this additional waiver?

The announcement puts the controversy over high school graduation requirements right back onto center stage. It remains to be seen whether this latest development will ultimately weaken the resolve of policy makers, who have, at least so far, resisted efforts to change the rule.