A controversial new state policy says high school students in Rhode Island need a score of 2 or better on standardized state testing to graduate. That’s only partially proficient, but thousands of students didn’t make the grade when they took the test last fall. School districts are now working to get those students up to speed so they can meet this new requirement. Rhode Island Public Radio’s Education Reporter Elisabeth Harrison sat down with a district official and a Math teacher in Cranston to find out how it’s going.
Roughly 40 percent of Rhode Island high school juniors are preparing to re-take the state math test so they can improve their scores enough to earn a diploma under a new state policy. That means high schools around the state must help those students study up on Algebra and Geometry. In Cranston, hundreds of students at its public high schools need to retake the test. So I asked Cranston Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Jeanine Notta Massey what the district is doing to get kids ready if they didn’t get a 2, the minimum score now required to graduate.
“We’ve created test prep classes, we have remedial classes and we’re trying to give them wrap around services, so that they have extra classes before they take the test, they have classes after they take the test so that when we get the results back if they haven’t achieved a 2, they’re already enrolled in some remedial classes.”
Cranston is a large district, one of the largest, how many kids are we talking about here?
“Our total enrollment hovers just beneath 11,000. Of the juniors who took the test, probably less than 400 just a hare shy of 400 did not achieve a 2.”
There are two public high schools in Cranston. At Cranston High School East, a little more than half of all juniors will have to re-take the math test in the fall. I asked the school’s math department head, Stacy Campbell how it is possible for so many students to pass their classes, make it all the way to junior year, and still be unable to score partially proficient on the math portion of the state test.
“I find that a lot of students, they’re not retaining the information. We had some higher level students and missed the 2 by one or two points. I look at the released items and see that someone who has passed algebra 1 and passed geometry should really be able to get at least a 2 on the exam.”
So why aren’t they? Well, Campbell says they may be forgetting some of the math they learned prior to the fall of junior year, when students first take the state test, but she believes there’s another problem – the test is difficult… more difficult, she believes, than the Massachusetts test known as MCAS. Although both tests were designed by the same testing company, Measured Progress, Campbell describes Rhode Island’s test has having trickier questions. She calls them distractors.
“They say not, but I think they have a lot of distractors, they intentionally try to distract kids so they’ll see that first answer and go oh I know that’s it but that’s not it. They try to trick them. And I’ve been at meetings with measured progress and they say absolutely not, but the director of curriculum for mathematics has compared similar questions with NECAP and with MCAS and seen that the same kind of question is way more straightforward.
Campbell says she’s confident Cranston students will get better at taking the Rhode Island test, especially now that it counts for graduation. In the past she watched some student bubble in designs on their answer sheets because they just didn’t take it seriously. The district is now trying to get all students through Algebra 1 and Geometry before they take the test and they’re offering voluntary test prep classes after school for juniors who need to re-take. Assistant Superintendent Jeanine Notta Massey says her biggest concern is that some students now have to concentrate on the tested subjects, Math and English, and that means skipping other classes that might interest them more.
“We have a set number of hours in the day so a student’s schedule is 6 periods a day in Cranston, and we also have to address all the other graduation requirements. So they have to take 4 years of English, 4 years essentially of Math, 2 years of social studies including U-S history, 3 years of science, a technology requirement, a fine art requirement so within all of that we have certain classes students need to take. And that’s okay, but if you add in now they have to take a remedial math class, something else gets pushed aside. So if a student is interested in taking extra technology classes or a foreign language or something else they may have to sacrifice something they’re interested in in order to take a remedial math class which in a child’s eyes they’re saying I don’t want to sit in another math class, I want to go take art or music. I see it as we’re further inhibiting them from developing into the people they want to become. We’re making them become the test- takers and I see that as unfortunate.
Despite her concerns, Notta Massey says she agrees with state officials when they say Rhode Island students need to know the basics, so they can succeed after high school. The challenge is to keep high school fun, and interesting while still preparing students to pass the state test. That’s a challenge teachers around the state are facing as they try to help roughly 4-thousand juniors, now studying to re-take the test.