Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist used the occasion of the release of school performance data to urge parents to take a more active role in their children's schools. On the date the Department of Education made public the annual school classification information, Gist encouraged families to challenge local school officials to explain specific steps they were taking to improve the quality of students' education.
Linda Borg of the Providence Journal explains that this is the second year that the state is using a school assessment system that does not rely on standardized test scores. Instead, schools are graded on how well the students are progressing in their studies, graduation rates and academic performance of certain demographic groups. The assessment system also takes into account how well schools are approaching 2017 statewide academic standards.
The approach is designed to correct many of the flaws of the federal No Child Left Behind law. Under NCLB, all schools were supposed to reach proficiency in English and math by 2014. Now, each school sets its own academic targets.
"This isn't about labeling or being negative," Gist said during a news conference. "We intentionally decided not give our schools grades. Classifying a school as a priority school means that that school is a priority for RIDE."
The schools are not assigned grades, per se, but are instead assigned classifications, from "commended" all the way down to "focus" or "priority." As of this year, nearly half of Providence schools languish in either focus or priority group.
However, according to Gist, that doesn't mean that these schools are not taking steps to turn themselves around. As a specific example, Gist points to Central Falls High School which was named a priority school this year – the lowest possible designation. Central Falls has in the past two years adopted a new, more rigorous curriculum as well as new teacher training program, but before its assessment designation can improve, it must show steady improvement over several years.
She said families should use the rankings as a starting point to ask deeper questions: Are children improving? What is the school doing to boost student achievement? Is the school closing gaps between white students and minority students?
In the urban districts, however, some schools have been failing their students for years. How should parents feel about that?
"That's what wakes me up every day," Gist said. "It's what consumes us" at the Department of Education.
Statewide, only about 7% of schools fall into the focus or priority group, the same proportion that fell into these categories a year ago.