New Test in R.I. Sends Shock Waves Through State

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Rhode Islanders have heard for years that, overall, their state's students score at or above the national average on standardized tests in math--not great, but not bad enough to sound an alarm. Test results from a new state assessment released last week, however, paint a different picture.

About 44 percent of Ocean State 8th graders, for example, failed to meet the state standard when tested last spring on basic math skills such as addition and multiplication. Further, only 18 percent met the state standard on a test of math "concepts," and just 19 percent reached the state goal on an assessment of "problem-solving."

State at a Glance: Rhode Island

Population: 1.3 million

Governor: Lincoln C. Almond (R)

State Superintendent: Peter McWalters

Number of K-12 students: 152,434

Number of K-12 public schools: 323

Fiscal 1998 K-12 budget: $519 million

"I think, statewide, it's reality time," said Theodore Eddy, who chairs the Providence Blueprint for Education, which promotes school improvement in Hartford. "I don't think anyone thought it was going to be quite so bad a picture as it turned out to be."

But the less-than-flattering snapshot of student performance reflects the kind of news states often receive as they wade into the movement for higher academic standards.

Lower scores are often the short-term price paid for implementing a rigorous new test to reach the long-term goal of raising student performance. When Maryland, for example, released the results of a new assessment in 1993, only 31.7 percent of its students reached the "satisfactory" level. Improved performance in subsequent years, however, has made Maryland's testing program a model among states implementing standards-based reforms. ("Gains on Student Performance Tests in Maryland Reported," Jan. 11, 1995.)

"It took a while for people to understand that our focus is on improvement, and we have this very high target to move toward," said Maryland Assistant State Superintendent Ronald Peiffer.

Beyond Basic Skills

Rhode Island used to depend solely on the commercially produced Metropolitan Achievement Test to measure student performance in mathematics. But the results of the multiple-choice test only showed how students compared with a nationally representative sample of students. Last year, the state's average percentile score on the 8th grade math test was 54; a score of 50 was the national norm.

But in the spring of this year, Rhode Island's 8th and 10th graders also were given what is known as a criterion-referenced test--one that measured how students did when compared against a state goal for performance.

"The state board of regents has defined how good is good enough, and now we have an assessment for measuring that," said Gary Sasse, the executive director of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, a Providence-based organization that has pushed for statewide school improvement. "It's a major step in our state towards implementing an education reform agenda."

Rhode Island's new math assessment for grades 8 and 10 comes from the New Standards project, a collaborative effort of more than a dozen states that developed standards and related assessments for student performance. The standards, which the state board of regents adopted this summer, are benchmarked to national and international expectations of what students should know and be able to do.

The state will drop the MAT 10th grade math test this year, but the state will continue to administer the 4th and 8th grade versions of the test.

The great difference between the scores in basic skills, concepts, and problem-solving on the New Standards test shows where the state needs to focus its attention, said state Commissioner of Education Peter McWalters.

"We have got basic skills down to a science," he said. "But that is not causing us to have high SAT scores or to be prepared for the jobs of the 21st century."

Instructional Shifts

Districtwide breakdowns of scores showed the lowest-performing Rhode Island communities were those with the lowest median household incomes in the state.

"What wasn't surprising was the link between poverty and test results," Mr. Sasse said. "What was a surprise was the need for improvement in some districts not characterized by high numbers of disadvantaged kids."

For example, although boasting some of the highest scores in the state, the 2,700-student Smithfield district's results showed 30 percent of its 8th graders not meeting the state standard in basic math skills.

"It's not unusual that when you give a test that's very different, that scores will be lower," said Smithfield Superintendent Diane DiSanto, who is the president of the Rhode Island Association of School Administrators. "I believe we have to keep in mind that this is a total shift in educational instruction and in what the goals are."

Teachers statewide now need professional development to learn how to align their instruction with a new assessment that uses open-ended questions instead of multiple-choice items, she said.

Next spring, the state will administer New Standards tests in English language arts in grades 4 and 8 for the first time. This year, the legislature allocated about $840,000 in new funds for professional development. State education department officials also met with districts to explain differences between the old and new tests.

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This story inaccurately reported the location of the Providence Blueprint for Education's school improvement efforts. The group, known as PROBE, advocates for school improvement in Providence.

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