Imagine you have a chronic blood pressure problem that your doctor has been monitoring for a number of years. You go for your regular checkup and instead of the old cuff and stethoscope method, your doctor puts your arm in a new high tech gadget. The doctor reports, "According to the new test and blood pressure level recommendations, instead of being considered moderately prehypertensive, you are now considered to have stage 2 or severe hypertension. However, the new score is really just a baseline, and I knew all along your hypertension was worse than what the old test said, so I recommend just continuing to try to improve your diet and exercise without medication, and we'll check you again next year."
I would hope you would make an appointment for a second opinion as soon as you could, because your doctor is not making sense.
Rhode Island has recently received the results of the first administration of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test, given in ELA/Literacy and math to public school students from grades 3 through 10.
As in our example above, the new test and standards indicate that our students are even less healthy academically than the previous tests. For example, instead of 69% of 7th graders being proficient in reading, as indicated by the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) the year before, according to PARCC, only 38% meet expectations. Likewise, 7th grade math scores went from 59% proficient down to 25%.
Under the PARCC rubric, students not meeting expectations at a given grade level are not considered on track to be "college and career ready" upon graduation. If you believe PARCC is a valid test, you must also believe that over 3/4 of our current seventh graders are not on track to be able to pass a non-remedial math or English course at CCRI after graduation, or successfully begin a post-secondary job training program.
Nonetheless, the response of our political and educational leadership has been strangely muted. Education Commissioner Ken Wagner told RI NPR that "These results are a baseline, a starting point for the work we have ahead of us." In a statement, Governor Raimondo said, "The results confirm what we already know from Rhode Island's NAEP scores, our high school and college graduation rates, and our remediation rate: too many of our children do not have the skills they need to succeed in today's economy."
If we are to take these scores seriously, they are actually worse than "what we already know" in many ways. 38% of Rhode Island 4th graders met the very rigorous standards for proficiency in math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in the recently released 2015 scores, but only 27% met the PARCC standards. 4th graders also scored two points lower on the PARCC ELA/Literacy test compared to NAEP reading. NAEP "proficiency" is universally considered a very high standard in math and reading, and there is a good argument that it is too high to simply be considered as "grade level." If our students have found PARCC to be harder even than NAEP, what does that mean?
Massachusetts reputation as the top performer nationally is based on their NAEP scores. Since they also took NAEP and PARCC this year, we can see that they not only exceeded our proficiency rates on the NAEP in fourth grade by 10% in reading and 16% in math, but on PARCC the 4th grade gap was significantly wider: 19% in reading and 21% in math. What does this mean?
Other significant drops took place at the school level. Central Falls High School and several Providence high schools showed no (0% of) 10th graders "exceeding expectations" in ELA/Literacy and math, and the numbers "meeting expectations" hovering around 5% in reading and 1% in math. Yet "what we already know" according to the current rhetoric is that it is very important for students in these schools to be challenged by taking more college-level Advanced Placement classes in high school. The week after the PARCC scores were released Governor Raimondo traveled to Central Falls High School to praise the school for a 49% increase in the number of students taking college courses for free under her Prepare RI program.
Here's the bottom line. If Gina Raimondo really believed that the PARCC scores were valid, she would have told Central Falls students that since none -- NONE -- of their 10th graders exceeded their basic high school expectations this year, there would be no early college program for that class, because it has been objectively proven that they are not "college-ready."
That's not going to happen because, like teachers and parents, when governors are confronted with actual students and with programs of personal significance to them, they know that test scores lie, and that flesh and blood students are capable of achievements far above what their "objective" assessments indicate.
The PARCC expectations are wrong. They were set unreasonably high for political reasons -- to make schools look bad and extend an unending crisis mentality. When education policymakers and wonks refer to the scores as a "baseline," what they are expressing is embarrassment not just with the seemingly low scores, but for the lack of validity of the entire process.
It is much easier to wave your hands and say "it is just a baseline" than to, for example, explain to parents in Narragansett that while, say, their class of 2010 had a 90% graduation rate and 84% of the class enrolled in college within six months, according to our new tests, only 42% of current 10th graders are on track to pass a freshman level English class at CCRI. Either "we already knew" that almost half of every class of college-bound graduates from Narragansett High has to take remedial English courses in college, or PARCC's prediction is just wrong.
Finally, if our schools were truly as bad as PARCC says, our leaders have no plausible plans to fix them. They believe in the course which has led us to this point and have no intention of turning in a different direction. But that's ok, "it's just a baseline!"