Rhode Island Students Prepare for High-Stakes Testing

Aug 8, 2013

4,000 high school seniors across Rhode Island need to beef-up their math skills so they can improve their test scores enough to graduate under a controversial new high school diploma system. Many of them are spending the summer doing just that. Roughly 100 students participated in a program wrapping up this week at the Community College of Rhode Island. It brought students from Providence, Warwick and Cranston together to study math and get a taste of college life.

17-year-old Katherine Agramonte, of Providence, came within one point of passing NECAP last year.
Credit Elisabeth Harrison / RIPR

“Okay, we’re gonna do five 0r 10 more minutes of class, then we’re gonna take the test.”

Math professor Rosa Fuster looks through wire-rimmed glasses at a classroom of roughly a dozen high school students, who can probably think of things they’d rather be doing than spend a flawless summer day studying the metric system. Still, she plows ahead with the lesson.

“With a meter, it’s 1,000 kilometers so the conversion is really easy,” said Fuster.

Fuster gives her students a test every Friday, with a combination of new material and review questions. She says some of these students have big holes in their math knowledge, things like subtraction and long division.

“Long division that’s something that they didn’t know; a lot of them didn’t know how to do it,” said Fuster.

If that sounds really basic, Fuster says, that's because it is.

“Even with subtraction, there’s some that have problems. There’s kids that don’t know how to multiply. We talk about very, very basic things,” said Fuster.

Students who need help with skills as basic as multiplication are likely to feel lost in high school algebra, and that’s probably part of the reason so many students score so poorly on the math section of the New England Common Assessment Program, the state standardized test.

Last year, 66 percent of Rhode Island high school juniors scored below proficient on the test and 40 percent scored too low to graduate under a state policy that takes effect for the first time in 2014. That’s why these soon-to-be seniors are giving up their summer days to study math.

“If it gets me closer to passing NECAP and graduating then I’ll do it,” said Katherine Agramonte.

The 17-year-old of Providence attends the MET School, an alternative public school. She says the class has been helpful, and she’s planning to continue with intensive math instruction when the school year starts in a few weeks.

“I took the class because during the summer I know I probably would have like forgotten most of the things I learned last year so to refresh my memory and to keep everything up to date I decided to take it,” said Agramonte.

Kevin Garcia, a 17-year-old from Providence says fractions are his biggest challenge. He’s planning to join the air force after high school, but he can’t do that without a diploma. Garcia says his teacher over the summer has been pushing him harder than his regular teachers at Alvarez High School.

“My teacher, he’s 76 years old and he knows what he’s doing, I thought old teachers were like slow and they forget, but this teacher knows math!” said Garcia.

Giving students a taste of what college is like is part of the goal of this pilot program, organized by the Rhode Island Department of Education. Marilyn Matzko from RIDE has been helping to oversee the program.

“Well For many of these students, they have become convinced that there are two types of high school students. There are students who are college material and there are students that are not college material. And I would say for the huge majority of the program participants they have never perceived themselves as being college material,” said Matzko. 

The students may question whether they are college material, but their teachers feel otherwise, that’s why they recommended them for the program at CCRI. The students are earning actual college credits by taking these summer courses, and at the end of the program they will take a test called the Accuplacer. That’s what CCRI uses to determine which students need remedial math and which ones can go straight into college courses. If the students score well enough, they can use their Accuplacer scores to meet the state graduation requirement.

Providence 17-year-old Karina Castillo says she starting to feel more confident that she will actually pass the NECAP when she retakes the test this fall.

“I’m like half way. It’s kinda scary," Castillo said. "Just, like, thinking of doing the math test all over again, knowing that you have to do it again because you failed by a little bit of points, it’s ridiculous but we have to do it."

Critics of using test scores as a requirement for a high school diploma have asked state officials to reconsider the policy, but Castillo says she isn’t waiting to find out whether they do. She wants to make sure nothing gets in the way of pursuing her dream of going to New York University and becoming a pediatrician.