Julia Steiny: Rhode Island, Raise Your Rock-Bottom Expectations

by Julia Steiny

Suddenly, in the wake of the state’s testing results, the Rhode Island General Assembly has whipped up legislation designed to quash any thought of the state having meaningful diplomas. How like them.

Companion bills — H-5277 and S-177 — would eliminate the unbelievably-modest test requirement for graduating from high school. Last week, the House version was heard by the Health, Education and Welfare Committee. Passions waxed. Abuse of the kids alleged. The mediocrity of the current status quo affirmed. Enabling lauded.

Julia Steiny

No wonder the state is such a mess.

Mind you the requirement is minimal, a small step up from zero diploma standards, which is what we have now. The class of 2014 and high-school students henceforth need to score at Level 2 or better to qualify for graduation. Level 1 is “substantially below proficient.” See last week’s column for details about currently available supports and accommodations for non-passers.

My concern this week is the message these bills are sending to the kids. It is: Well, no, we don’t want you to have to work hard and earn, however modestly, a diploma that certifies Something. If you’re blowing off your work or cutting school, we’ll protect you from consequences. If you’re legitimately struggling, we’ll protect you from the bother of exercising your right to get all the help you need to meet the standard for real.

The expectations of the Rhode Island public are so low, you can walk on them.

Already in 2008 and then again in 2010, the Board of Regents told the public-education community that students would eventually need to test out of Level 1. Both times public uproar pushed the deadline back in order to give teachers, kids, schools and parents time to get their act together. After the second bruhaha, the requirement was finally established for next year’s graduating class.

So this is nothing new. The General Assembly certainly could have taken action before now, but didn’t. The message was out there. But when challenge presents itself, the attitude in Rhode Island is: this too will pass.

And lo! It does. The Legislature now jumping in for a last-minute save proves the point. We set goals and then dismantle them. Which is exactly how we get our nation-leading unemployment rate, dismal business climate and expensive, mediocre schools.

So it’s sad, but not a huge surprise that the class of 2014 who took the test last fall, as juniors, did not ramp up their game as though urgency were upon them.

True, proficiency in the Math test, the hardest one, improved a healthy 4 percentage points. And the percentage of students in Level 1 dropped from 44 to 40. So there were some gains. But that 40 percent is about 4,000 students. The state can not afford 4,000 drop-outs.

But wait. Annually, about 1,900 students drop out of Rhode Island high schools. To date none of those left because of a test score.

Furthermore, of the students who do graduate from RI high schools, about 20 percent are chronically absent, meaning that they miss a month of school each year, or more. (See: High-school absenteeism and college persistence on the RIDataHUB, page 6.) Twenty percent?! Surely those students could achieve more if they got their sorry butts to school more often.

And students have been quoted recently saying they receive only “A”s and “B”s in their classes, but score at Level 1? Huh? What’s wrong with that picture? I was no testing hotshot myself, so I had to learn strategies to improve my scores. If these students are so diligent, with grades like that, surely they too can pick up the test-taking skills that would get them out of Level 1. (Or the kids’ school is a total sham.)

Because life is a test. Meeting benchmarks is a life-long requirement, whether it’s getting a drivers license or dressing for a job interview. What’s the standard and what do I have to do to meet it? Learn that lesson.

Mind you, the plight of the 4,000 kids is real, and upsetting. I do not minimize the steep challenge of meeting the new bar. They have been done wrong. In several respects. Including that they haven’t been held accountable for their performance to date.

You’d think the taxpayers, parents, teachers, indeed the kids themselves would be applauding the higher standards. Pluck and ambition are good things. You’d think folks would be rallying around those kids who haven’t yet made it, offering to help in any way.

You’d think they’d be saying: We know you can do it. We have high expectations of you and we want you to have high expectations of yourself. We understand you need support to get there, so we’re here to help however we can. We believe in you. We’ll both feel marvelous when you succeed! And you will!

These are the encouraging words of all great parents, teachers, politicians and adults in general.

Instead, what we’re doing is called “enabling.” We are the Ocean of Enabling state. We see struggle and rush in to spare anyone from working harder or learning anything. Our status quo is famously bad. Rock-bottom expectations keep us there.

Dear Legislators: A meaningless diploma serves no one, especially not the kids. How dare you think so little of them. Encourage and help them instead.

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 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, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.