A Cloudy Start to the New School Year

Concerns about NECAP testing


For anyone who has ever attended, sent kids to or worked in schools (and especially for those of us who fall into all three categories), September is the alpha month; it’s the start of a brand new school year, with all of the hope that new beginnings entail. However, the immediate reality of picking up the loose threads of learning from June quickly tarnishes September’s shine. Although I’ve expressed some ambivalence about required summer reading, summer learning loss is a real phenomenon that hits struggling students most detrimentally.

Moreover, in our state’s public schools, high-stakes standardized tests assess learning from the previous year in October of the following year (with the exception of science, which is tested in the spring). Newly minted fourth graders will have the opportunity to demonstrate their third grade learning when they take the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) tests next month. As much as we’d love for September to be a fresh start, it’s actuallya critical time to recap, reinforce and review previous learning. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that. No matter when – or if – the NECAPs were administered, some review would clearly be needed in order to start the new school year on firm footing.

My concern about the timing of the NECAPs is aimed at raising awareness about the practice of according these tests the considerable power that they currently possess, even though they tell only a small part of a school’s story. If you want to get into the pros and cons of high-stakes standardized tests in a big way, let me take you out for a cup of coffee and we’ll have a fine time hashing it out. Seriously, I’d love that, but I am not going to do so right here in detail. What I am going to do is question whether the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) made the right move by ranking and labeling schools according to 2011 NECAP scores.

In order to qualify for a waiver from some of the requirements of the United States Department of Education’s No Child Left Behind legislation, RIDE created a new way to identify struggling schools, which resulted in a ranking and labeling of all of our state’s schools. Schools labeled commended, leading and typical require no interventions. Vartan Gregorian Elementary School at Fox Point fell into the typical category. Schools labeled warning, focus and priority make up the majority of our city and neighborhood’s schools. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School received warning status; Nathan Bishop Middle School and the two schools within Hope High School - Hope Arts and Hope Information Technology - were designated as focus schools. If you crave more detail, visit RIDE’s website.

The system strove to identify schools that had not made enough overall progress according to the NECAPs and schools that were not doing enough to close the achievement gaps among the subgroups that comprise their student bodies. Over the course of the school year, negatively labeled schools are required to develop and implement plans to address their identified shortcomings. What does this tell us? Nothing new. Just about all of the professionals and many students and family members who are part of our school communities know that their schools are serving some students very well and others less so. Our schools – especially the elementary and middle schools – are tremendously diverse, and with the proven value of that diversity come real challenges. Educators know full well that they are accountable for serving all students effectively. With the data that RIDE used to create its rankings, in combination with arguably more meaningful measures, schools have already been addressing their challenges.

Not only do RIDE’s new labels not enlighten us, they don’t come with any meaningful support. Very little federal and no new state funding is available for schools to develop and implement improvement plans. Moreover, this focus on test scores suggests that we should dwell on the meaning of the small slice of data that high stakes standardized test scores provide.

While this may not have been the intention, RIDE’s labels have had the effect of needlessly shaming schools and obscuring their complex realities without offering any real support. For anyone who feels that our neighborhood’s schools are somehow diminished as a result of this rejiggering, please know that you don’t know the whole story. I am confident that this will not knock our educators off their game, and I hope that September can retain at least a bit of its shine for those young people who need it most.