R.I. Lawmakers, Shamed by Massachusetts’ Test Scores, Vow Action

By Daarel Burnette II — January 11, 2019 2 min read
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Rhode Islanders got a rude awakening last month when its state department released test scores that showed neighboring Massachusetts dramatically outperforms its students.

Now, Rhode Island lawmakers are throwing everything on the table this legislative session to boost academic outcomes including providing schools more money, replacing standards, overhauling curriculum, and changing high school graduation requirements.

While 51 percent of Massachusetts’ 8th-grade students scored proficient on its state English exams, just 28 percent of Rhode Island’s students did. Similarly, while 50 percent of Massachusetts’ 8th grade students scored proficient on the math portion of its exam, 23 percent of Rhode Island’s 8th grade students scored proficient on that state’s exam.

The gap held true for both white and racial minority students, and for both poor and wealthy students. The gap widened as students got older.

Rhode Island scrapped the PARCC test two years ago and replaced it with the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System. But the apples-to-apples comparison between the next-door neighbors has sparked much hand-wringing in the state.

“This is our truth-telling moment,” Ken Wagner, Rhode Island’s superintendent said shortly after the release of the test scores, according to local media reports. “There’s no surprise we have tons of work to do. Massachusetts students aren’t smarter than ours. They’ve just been doing the work for the past 25 years. We’ve been doing pieces of it, but we haven’t stuck with it. We haven’t all been on the same page like Massachusetts has.”

In towns located on the Massachussetts border, district superintendents have been asked by reporters, school board members, and parents in recent weeks why it wouldn’t make sense for their children to jump the border.

Many attribute the vast difference in achievement outcomes to Massachusetts’ school reform initiatives that took place in the early 1990s; the fact that Massachusetts had the same superintendent, Mitchell D. Chester for more than nine years (he died in 2017); and that Massachusetts’ students have been taking the same test for more than 20 years.

“The Massachusetts system has been built for over a quarter of a century ... from numerous conversations about instruction, curriculum development, high-level policymaking, and a commitment to fund those endeavors,” Victor Mercurio, the superintendent of East Greenwich, R.I., schools told its local newspaper.

Samuel Zurier, a Providence-based lawyer who has worked on several failed lawsuits over the funding and quality of schools in Rhode Island over the years, told Education Week that the biggest difference between the states is that Massachusetts’ politicians have always had the court’s backing when instituting widespread school reform initiatives.

Rhode Island’s state governance, on the other hand, has decentralized much of the oversight of its schools to the 47 districts that dot the tiny state.

But Rhode Island’s politicians in recent weeks have debated in person and on Twitter whether they should reverse course and set statewide graduation requirements, institute new statewide standards, and even possibly institute a statewide curriculum.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts is having its own moment for introspection. Last year, public school advocates told politicians it’s long past time to replace that state’s 25-year-old school funding formula and the many ways the state oversees its schools.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.