On Thursday, capped by the announcement that 73% of this year's seniors have met the math segment of the NECAP graduation requirement, State Education Commissioner, Deborah A. Gist confidently presented an upbeat assessment of educational progress in Rhode Island.
The many ways in which public school students are improving, especially with regard to the controversial NECAP tests, which are now linked to high school graduation, were highlighted by Gist in her annual State of Education speech before the General Assembly. 73% of this year's seniors have either passed the math section of the test or shown enough progress to meet the requirement, up from 60% a year ago. Friday is the day scheduled for the release of NECAP results by the state Department of Education.
The rising opposition to high-stakes testing appeared to be addressed by Gist on Thursday night. Based on their test results about 4,000 of last year's juniors were at risk of not earning a diploma. However, this fall those students were permitted to retake the test. In addition, they also have other opportunities to earn their diploma.
"Our schools are already making sure that our younger students are increasingly better prepared before they get to high school," Gist said. "So let's not lose sight of the magnitude of what Rhode Island has accomplished. More students today are ready to graduate â¦.We are on the right course."
Rhode Islanders were urged by Gist not to "give up on our students or limit them by lowering expectations," a nod to those individuals who would weaken the graduation requirements.
A new initiative was also announced by Gist: by 2020, every school district will offer dual language immersion opportunities beginning in kindergarten.
Rhode Island's educational progress seemed to be the focus of Gist's speech. She said that for the first time, the percentage of Rhode Island students who performed at or above proficiency in math and reading on a national test surpassed the national average.
However, as Linda Borg of Providence Journal reports, gaps between minority students and white, middle-class students persist, especially between white and Hispanic students. Rhode Island still ranks in the bottom 10 states despite starting to close this gap.
The achievements of Central Falls and Pawtucket, two districts that have dramatically improved their high school graduation rates were singled out by Gist. Nonetheless, compared with a 90% rate for higher-income students, low-income students statewide have a four-year graduation rate of 66%.
Gist said that among the year's accomplishments, the state has expanded the state's pre-kindergarten programs, developed a model school safety plan, and partnered with two of the state's public colleges to offer summer math classes for struggling high school students. Rhode Island was also the first state in the country to adopt rigorous new science standards, which will better prepare students for careers in science, technology, and engineering.
Larry Purtill, president of the National Education Association, Rhode Island, was critical, despite Tim Duffy, executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, giving Gist credit for underscoring the positive.
"There are great things going on in Rhode Island but there are lots of unanswered questions about the NECAP, graduation and graduation waivers," he said.
Gist was also criticized by the teachers' unions, for taking away the individual autonomy of teachers by what they say is a relentless focus on testing.