Watering down NECAP diploma requirement

Jan 10, 2014

One of the most contentious issues in education remains high-stakes testing. In Rhode Island most of the strum and drang revolves around the New England Common Assessment Program Test.

This year, for the first time, R.I. high school seniors will have to pass the NECAP test to get a diploma. But the Rhode Island Department of Education, with little fanfare, on January 3rd issued a waiver policy that has been slowly circulating among education wonks and professionals around the state.

Depending on where you sit, the policy either dilutes the NECAP requirement so much as to make it virtually meaningless, or is a reasonable `safety net’ for graduating students.

The waiver allows a school district to award a diploma to a student who does not pass the NECAP if they are accepted into a ``non-open enrollment, accredited higher education institution’’ or get into a national community service program such as AmeriCorp or City Year.

To the American Civil Liberties Union’s Rhode Island chapter, which has long criticized high-stakes testing, the waiver makes a mockery of the R.I. Department and Education Commissioner Deborah Gist’s push to institute the NECAP graduation requirement.

``For years, RIDE has been saying that students must demonstrate a certain level of proficiency on the NECAP test in order to show that they deserve a diploma and are college ready,’’ said Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU. ``Last year RIDE showed it didn’t really mean what it said when the policy was revised to allow students to qualify for a diploma if they merely showed a certain level of improvement on their NECAP scores. The latest revision, however, completely undermines any semblance of rationale for the use of the NECAP as a high stakes test.’’

The waiver took some state educators by surprise. One top secondary school official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the waiver policy makes it fairly easy to game the system. There are always colleges who will take just about any student who applies and can pay the tuition. So applicants who don’t pass NECAP but want a diploma can simply shop for a `safety’ college with lax admission standards and still receive a diploma.

But Kim Bright, chief of staff for the state education department, said the waiver policy makes sense by establishing a ``safety net’’ for students who are accepted to a college. College acceptance is evidence that a student has successfully learned in high school, she said.

Bright also noted that the waiver policy does not apply to so-called `open enrollment’’ institutions that take all comers, such as the Community College of Rhode Island.

Bright also said that decisions on waivers would be up to local school districts. ``It is just immensely reasonable that if a student has an acceptance letter in his or her hands from a college than they would be eligible for a diploma,’’ added Bright.

But Brown called the decision ``just mind-boggling’’ and noted that the state Board of Education, with no debate, rejected on a split vote a petition presented by 17 organizations calling for a repeal of the high stakes testing requirement.

``For years, civil rights, educational and community groups have been arguing that the NECAP is simply not a useful indicator of a student’s qualifications for a diploma,’’ said Brown. ``It is now time for RIDE to clearly and formally acknowledge that fact instead of coming up with more and more convoluted exceptions to the testing requirement that swallow the rule.’’