PROVIDENCE – State Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist had words of both praise and caution on the latest round of New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) testing on Friday.
Gist's praise included high marks for charter schools in Cumberland, Pawtucket, Providence and Woonsocket and also a special nod to the students and staff of Central Falls High School for raising its four-year graduation rate by 17 points and Woonsocket High School for its improvement in reading.
Overall, Rhode Island students for the first time scored higher than the national average in both mathematics and reading, she said.
But Gist also noted that while setting high goals for student achievement, the state still has work to do in getting all of its students to reach those goals.
This year, statewide, students only met seven of the 31 benchmarks set by the Department of Education for individual student groups in showing improvement on the NECAPs and also in improving graduation rates.
For that reason, Gist said, she also wished to encourage the students themselves to work harder on achieving state academic standards.
Teachers and staff members at Rhode Island public schools have stepped forward to work for better student achievement, “but we also have to ask that same amount of effort from our students and our families,” she said.
The goal for everyone involved in a student's education, their teachers and their family members should be to “make sure the right steps are taken” to ensure the student is successful, she said.
The results also show the importance of continuing work on closing the gaps in student performance between the various groups of students, English Language Learners and socio-economic groupings and between those of the inner cities and those in suburban communities, according Gist. Even with work still to be done in those areas, Gist said, the federal Department of Education has been impressed by the policies Rhode Island school districts have put into place to assist their students in achieving state standards.
“We know we are on the right track, we just have to step it up,” she said.
Gist invited officials from several successful school programs in the state to present details on their work inspiring success among their students and included both public schools involved in school reformation efforts such as Central Falls High School and innovative programs such as Cumberland's Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy as examples.
Central Falls High School's big shout-out came over the school's success in raising its four-year graduation rate from 54 percent to 71 percent last year, according to Gist.
Victor Capellan, Central Falls High School deputy superintendent said the school was able to achieve that success by creating a “culture of learning” by its work to create an individualized support structure for students that provide them the incentives needed to pursue their diplomas.
High School guidance counselors work to develop a specific plan to meet each student's requirements for achieving their diplomas and then the students themselves, supported by their teachers, pursue the goals included in that plan.
Central Falls teachers put in 70 extra hours a week to help their students meet their goals and students also join summer programs to continue their work toward graduation, he said.
“We didn't lower our expectations, we set high goals, but it was our students who worked with our teachers that allowed us to get our progress,” he said.
North Smithfield schools were to be commended for their work in driving significant increases in writing — 29 percent at the elementary level, 25 percent at the middle school level and 23 percent at the high school, Gist said. North Smithfield Director of Curriculum Clare Arnold said the improvement was the result of a district-wide effort to incorporate writing in all aspects of the school day.
“Our students' hard work certainly paid off,” she said.
The Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral School in Cumberland achieved its success in raising its math proficiency scores by 25 points through innovative programs such as a longer school day and a well-trained and dedicated staff, according to Jeremy Chiapetta, the school's executive director.
“Our students work hard every day as they climb the mountain to college,” he said. The student success at Blackstone Valley Prep has shown that the same goal is reachable for all students in Rhode Island, he added.
Another innovative school program, the Learning Community in Central Falls, has found the right formula to raise its student performance in math by 15 points to an achievement level of 55 percent of its students testing proficient in math.
The improvement has shown that “every student can achieve success regardless of their socio-economic status,” said Abigail Wilson, the school's director of instruction.
The students at Learning Community receive a greater focus on real life problem solving in their school work and also assistance in “showing what they know” when they take state assessments. The school has been able to close the performance gaps in its diverse student body by employing a longer school day and additional testing to help direct its improvement efforts to the areas where problems exist.
The students often have the knowledge they need to succeed but the challenge is one of expressing that knowledge, according to Wilson. The school conducts its own student assessment program three times a year and in turn uses that information to structure the school's curriculum to meet student needs, she explained.
Gist also offered praise to Woonsocket School Supt. Giovana Donoyan for Woonsocket High School's “big gains” in reading while she read off a list of commendations for other Rhode Island schools.
The Beacon Charter School gained praise for its efforts to increase its graduation rate by a significant amount over the prior year and for also turning in one of the highest reading proficiency rates in the state.
Ponaganset High School in Glocester also had success in boosting its graduation rate and now ranks as the third highest in that area in the state along with North Providence.
Pawtucket drew praise from Gist for its Winter Street Elementary School and its “big gains in reading.” And West Warwick drew praise for its work in raising reading scores in that district.
Even with those good examples, Gist said the fact remains that Rhode Island schools still have much work to accomplish before they achieve the final goals of the federal No Child Left Behind education reform act.
Middle Schools faired well during the past year with 60 percent of their students statewide proficient in Mathematics, up 3 points, and 74 percent proficient in reading, up 4 points. Elementary school scores were overall unchanged from last year, she noted, and high school schools the same in reading but down 3 percentage points in mathematics from last year.
The round of testing conducted in October also found 55 percent of the students tested were proficient or better.
Participation in the state testing program remains a concern and Gist pointed to a higher than expected number of students not completing their test questions as an area to be worked on for next year.
The results, as compiled for Friday's report show continuing concern over the state's ability to meet full compliance with No Child Left Behind by 2014 as the law originally required.
Gist said it is clear that state would not meet all the provisions of No Child Left Behind by that date and as result the Department of Education is planning to submit a request for waiver of some of the law's provisions by Feb. 21. The plan would seek more time for raising student performance while also creating new options for the assessment of students in specific need categories.
Gist remains confident that the goal to meet high standards the state has set for its students will be a successful one.
“I think we are climbing and jumping over every obstacle we have come up against in this very difficult work,” she said.
Woonsocket School Superintendent Giovana Donoyan, in attendance for the release of the new results, said she believes Woonsocket schools are continuing to make progress in achieving the standards even if more work needs to be done in areas such as high school math. “Whenever you present a new standard to a school you have to provide professional development to the school staff and then there is a learning curve period where, as the commissioner indicated, it can take 3 to 5 years to show results,” she said. “If you want to see tremendous improvement, you have to work hard every day for a long period of time,” she said.
Cumberland Mayor Daniel McKee, who attended the event with Michael MaGee of the Mayoral Academy, said the school's success is showing that it can be a model for public education in many other Rhode Island communities.
“It's showing that the mayoral academy movement can really have a voice in the way public schools operate,” McKee said.
A breakdown of the results by community can be obtained by visiting http://www.ride.ri.gov/Assessment/Results.aspx