Rhode Island Legislates Low Expectations

by Julia Steiny

Currently, Rhode Island has the highest unemployment in the nation.  As unemployment was falling nationally, RI stayed high even as train-wreck states like Michigan (with the near demise of the auto industry) and Nevada (massive real estate bust) improved.  Business-climate reports put RI at or near dead last in their rankings, including on the quality of the workforce.

So you would think the Rhode Island Legislature would be knocking itself out to beef up the economy by backing all manner of workforce development, like making high school diplomas more meaningful.

But no, quite the contrary.  They just dismantled years of work designed to make students accountable for learning a bit of math and English.

As of the graduating class of 2014, students were required to “pass” the statewide test, NECAP, in English and math, to earn a diploma.  “Pass” merely meant achieving better than Level 1, or “substantially-below proficient.”  Students who failed had multiple chances to re-take the test, and even then only needed to show improvement.  They could also take other tests.  And districts were allowed to grant waivers and give out diplomas anyway to those who failed all testing efforts.  The bar couldn’t have been lower.

But the Legislature, and those who have the Legislative ear, got a violent attack of enabling and decided to spare the kids this super-minimalist expectation.  So for the next three years, schools are forbidden to hold students accountable for their test performance.  If kids feel like blowing off state exams, no prob.  The Legislature got them off the hook.  Whining to the right people in RI helps you weasel out of a lot.

The message to the kids is:  “We hold you to low expectations.  We feel sorry for you.  We’ll protect you from facing this academic challenge.”

Just up the coastline, Massachusetts has been showing the world that high expectations via “high-stakes” tests in high school will inspire the schools and most importantly, the kids to rise to the occasion.  In 2003 when their state test, the MCAS, first counted towards graduation, the number of high school students who passed the test on the first try rose 20 percentage points over the prior year.  Kid didn’t get smarter, they got serious.  They had a dog in the fight.  If MA students want a diploma, they work for it.  As well they should.

Last year, roughly 4,000 of the 11,000 juniors in RI’s graduating class of 2014 failed to get out of Level 1.  The protest against the test requirement was deafening, while the lack of curiosity about those 4,000 seemed mind-boggling.  For example, did they go to school regularly?  I ask because a study that examined the MA students who failed the 2003 tests found that most were chronically absent, defined as missing 10 days of school or more.  Regularly-attending English-language learners and special-needs students passed at far higher rates than their peers who were absent 10 days or more.  No matter what your challenge, going to school improves performance.

If RI’s Level 1 failures didn’t bother going to school regularly, why should they get diplomas?  What does it mean to “earn” such a diploma?  A local research study found that 20 percent of RI’s 2009 graduates were chronically absent during high school.  The same study goes on to show that graduates with horrible attendance enrolled in college at lower rates and washed out at higher rates than those who regularly went to school.

In other words, the Legislature is making it official that RI diplomas can be placebos, nice confections of convenience.  They certify nothing.  RI’s Education Commissioner Deborah Gist has been absolutely right to push schools to give out diplomas that mean something.  Feel-good diplomas don’t feel so marvelous when the kid’s academic skills are so poor she’s taking remedial classes in college, or hasn’t the 9th-grade skills required for job training.  Workforce development, anyone?

Good parents will tell you that if you set an expectation with a consequence, you’d better follow through.  If not, your kids get the idea that boundaries are squishy and that they can dodge obligations and accountability.  That’s how we create brats and under-performers.  RI students have known they could stay another year in high school to earn a real diploma, however unappealing that may be.  Or else pay better attention in the first place.

Protecting kids from hard challenges at which they might fail is the legacy of the self-esteem movement.  It’s no favor to the kids to enable them to feel good and effective when in fact they’re not.  Actually, it’s kinda horrible.  All kids need high expectations and high support.  They need the adults to be there for them, encouraging their efforts and holding them responsible.

Ah Rhode Island.  I do love it.  But it’s like loving an oppositional-defiant, special-needs child.  My heart’s in it, but it’s oh so hard.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, seejuliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

Julia Steiny
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools. Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant. After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal's weekly education column. Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUB. For more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement in the US and internationally.
Julia Steiny