Poor Math Skills May Keep 40% of Rhode Islanders from Graduating

The canary first wavered in Rhode Island schools' coal mine in 2005 when a state test showed that 25% of RI 4th graders were "substantially below proficient" in math — and now that those students are approaching graduation, that number has swelled to 40%. Students must test out as "partially proficient" in math, which means that Rhode Island has a year and a half to ensure that 2 out of 5 of its graduating class won't have to repeat their senior year.

Dan McGowan of WPRI.com reports that the data has been known for so many years — with no indication that the trend was getting better — that teachers and administrators aren't shocked.

"This is not something we were surprised about," Patti DiCenso, a secondary school performance officer for Pawtucket schools, said. "This is not something we knew was going to happen last year. This goes back a few years. Are we frustrated? Absolutely. Are we concerned? Absolutely."

The state has done a better job of attacking deficits in reading — districts saw improvements in achievement in that area — but math has not only continued to be a problem, but has grown in severity. And as the clock ticks, solutions are becoming more pressing.

In Providence, school officials have launched a graduation awareness campaign that maps out a strategy for its 11th graders to improve their NECAP scores and students. The plan includes:

  • more rigorous academic interventions;
  • the creation of personalized graduation plans for all students;
  • a community engagement strategy that will promote better school attendance;
  • and policy development that will engage stakeholders in the city's graduation policy.
Whether these plans will bear fruit — and do so quickly enough — remains to be seen.
Critics blame an obsession for high standards, constantly-changing plans and poor implementation for the lingering problem, echoing concerns in other states. Teachers unions are especially opposed to using high-stakes tests to determine graduation eligibility or serving as a way to measure a student's ability or what they have learned.
"We are opposed to reliance on a single test for determining a student's future," Robert Walsh, the executive director of the NEA, told WPRI.com. "We support the ongoing evaluation of student achievement based on multiple measures, including authentic assessments that are directly linked to the standards, curricula and materials teachers use."
That ongoing evaluation is an approach in which RI's educators find solace. Though the NECAP tests carry with them a great deal of importance, hopefuls don't regard a low grade as ‘failing.' Because students can re-take the tests in October and in the spring, that provides an incentive to improve to an acceptable level of proficiency.
Parents, teachers and school leaders all express that they want to see Rhode Island's children succeed and leave the K-12 system prepared to tackle higher education or enter the workforce. While 60% of the state's students are on track to do that, the remainder is set to have a long — and uncertain — year and a half.
Matthew Tabor

Matthew Tabor

Matthew is a prolific, independent voice in the national education debate. He is a tireless advocate for high academic standards from pre-K through graduate school, fiscal sense and personal responsibility. He values parents’ and families’ rights and believes in accountability for teachers, administrators, politicians and all taxpayer-funded education entities. With a unique background that includes work in higher education, executive recruiting, professional sport and government, Matthew has consulted on new media and communication strategies for a broad range of clients. He writes the blog “Education for the Aughts” at www.matthewktabor.com , has contributed to National Journal’s ‘Expert’ blog for Education , and interacts with the education community on Twitter and Google+.
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