School & District Management

R.I. Downplays Tests as Route to Diplomas

By Jeff Archer — April 12, 2005 8 min read

At a ritzy downtown hotel here, 12th grader Megan Duclos spent a recent Saturday helping about 80 couples plan their wedding receptions. She greeted them, gave them forms to fill out, and showed them to a ballroom to pick out food, floral arrangements, and linens.

In working with a hotel events planner, the sociable teenager from North Providence High School fulfilled part of a high school graduation requirement. To earn a diploma, she must spend 15 hours working with an adult in the community.

Megan Duclose, a senior at North Providence High School, is working with an event planner at the Providence Biltmore Hotel to fulfill a graduation requirement.

“It can be pretty stressful,” Ms. Duclos said. “It’s this person’s wedding, and it’s all on you to make it turn out right.”

While about half the states require high school students to pass tests to graduate, or have plans to do so, policymakers in the nation’s smallest state have struck out on a path that values multiple ways of measuring achievement.

Under state rules adopted two years ago, Rhode Island districts have had to design new graduation policies that use measures other than tests to assess students’ abilities. The regulations take effect for the class of 2008, but some districts—like Ms. Duclos’ 3,500-student North Providence school system—are ahead of the game.

In taking a broader view of assessment, Rhode Island policymakers hope to avoid narrowing the curriculum at the secondary level. The goal is to prompt schools to stress skills that aren’t easily gauged with one-shot tests, such as time management, working with others, and organization.

“It’s very important work,” said Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, Inc., a Washington-based group that advocates high academic standards. “I think an ideal state assessment system would include a mix of on-demand tests and rich performance assessments—neither of which, on their own, provides all the information you need.”

Districts have submitted plans to the state that stress work-related experiences and solving real-world problems. Many want students to give oral reports and assemble portfolios of their work.

By all accounts, those activities demand more work of students and teachers. For state policymakers here, the biggest trick is to ensure that all students are held to the same standard, even while pursuing a range of projects.

But supporters say the payoff will be worth the effort. Joseph B. Goho, the principal of North Providence High, said that before his school started requiring its nearly 250 seniors to complete projects in 2000, as many as two dozen seniors dropped out most years. Now, the number leaving school without graduating is in the single digits.

“It has allowed us to leave fewer children behind,” Mr. Goho said. “It’s engaging our less motivated kids. It’s also curing senioritis for our high-achieving kids.”

‘Alternative View’

As in many states, education leaders in Rhode Island say they want to make a high school diploma certify more than that a student has taken certain courses. In spelling out new criteria for measuring what students should be able to do, the Ocean State decided to limit, rather than emphasize, the role of state tests.

When the board of regents for elementary and secondary education passed its new graduation policies, it stipulated that scores on state exams couldn’t count for more than 10 percent of all the factors a district uses to decide whether a student graduates. (Rhode Island tests students in the 11th grade in reading, mathematics, and writing.)

“I’ve never trusted state assessments to be used as gates and measures en masse,” said Peter J. McWalters, the state commissioner of education and a strong supporter of the policies. “You can use it as a barometer. But to treat individual kids that way is just wrong. So I am very much looking for the assessment strategies that value and support this kind of alternative view.”

The state allowed districts to craft their own graduation criteria so long as they included a “demonstration” of proficiency completed over time, such as a portfolio, senior project, or student exhibition. Districts were urged to make out-of-school experiences part of the equation.

To show districts what the mix could look like, the state education department has convened meetings for local education officials that include leaders from some of the dozen of the state’s 36 districts that already had been emphasizing the use of student demonstrations.

In North Providence, students do their projects in their 12th grade English classes. The undertaking involves a research paper, an oral presentation that incorporates audio-visual aids, a math exercise, and fieldwork done outside of school. All of the work focuses on an area of interest picked by the student.

Several Rhode Island high schools have experience with similar assignments through a decade-old state initiative that gives students the option of earning an added distinction with their diplomas, or certificate of initial mastery. The certificate requires a “capstone” project, in which students plan an event or offer a solution to a real-world problem.

Another example that state officials point to is the “electronic portfolio.” Cranston High School East, in the 11,000-student Cranston district, has students upload their best schoolwork to Web sites accessible to their parents. To graduate, a student must post completed assignments that teachers have determined to be “portfolio worthy” in each of several different skills areas.

Taking Ownership

At Rhode Island schools using such demonstrations, students often describe the experience as being the most intensive of their high school careers. In most cases, it’s the first time they’ve been asked to take charge of a months-long project, and frequently it means dealing with adults in the outside world.

When Josh Thompson decided to work toward a certificate of initial mastery at Coventry High School in Coventry, his biggest fear was calling people he didn’t know. For his capstone project, he proposed asking tree-removal companies to contribute leftover branches to the Roger Williams Zoo in Providence.

“I’ve always had a fear of talking on the phone,” said the student, who completed the project as a 10th grader this year. “So getting over that was a big accomplishment.”

As a participant in an educational program at the zoo since his freshman year, he knew that it uses branches to supplement the diets of animals such as elephants and giraffes, and to give them additional objects to explore in their environments—what the field calls “enrichment.”

For the project, Mr. Thompson turned in an inch-thick binder that included a brochure he created on the benefits of enrichment, as well as journal entries on his dealings with the zoo and with tree-removal businesses. He also gave a PowerPoint presentation to an audience of teachers.

Josh Thompson, a 10th grader at Coventry High School, used his work at the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence for a school project.

“It was a real benefit to know I could produce that much work myself,” said the 15-year-old. When he finished his presentation, he said, “it was probably one of the best moments of my life.”

Other projects in the 5,900-student Coventry district reflect similar levels of effort. One student persuaded a local newspaper to start a section to publish the work of teenage writers. Another launched a drive to raise money to buy backpacks for foster children to use as they move from home to home.

At schools that have stressed portfolios over projects, some students say the act of putting together a collection of their work over time gives them a sense of purpose about their education.

Vinnie Cromartie, a junior at Cranston High School East, thinks it turned his academic life around.

Although he was a good student in elementary school, he said, he began slipping in the middle grades as he started questioning the importance of the work. But when he got to Cranston High East, the electronic portfolio gave him a showcase for the work he was most proud of, like an audio clip of him singing a song that he wrote about his life called “The Odyssey.”

“It’s kind of like I can look at my portfolio and say: ‘This is what I’ve done, and this is what I need to do,’ ” he explained, adding that he takes school more seriously now. “At first I wasn’t that into it, but as I started putting more and more into my portfolio, it just kind of grew on me, and showed me that it was really important.”

Making a Case

But while supporters say the benefits of such activities are many, so are the challenges posed by scaling up the approach to a statewide policy. Even schools already using portfolios and projects say the change has required significant staff training—both on how to guide students and on how to grade their work.

Stacey Bachini, a teacher at North Providence High and a fan of the senior project, notes that it forces her to tailor instruction to each student because they all do something different. Teachers of the senior-project course in her school have as many as 80 students at a time.

“You have to meet with each kid,” she said. “A student might say: ‘I’m doing mine on police work; what would be good a thesis statement on police work?’ ”

The volume of work demanded can be a source of angst for families. Last fall, parents in East Greenwich packed into meetings of their school board to protest the district’s plans to require a senior project starting with this year’s 12th graders. Facing complaints that students would be overburdened, district leaders decided to make the project optional for students this year.

The biggest puzzle for the state now is making sure that the locally designed requirements hold all students to the same expectations. Whether a district uses portfolios, senior projects, or exhibitions, the state wants the work that students produce to show that they have mastered the specific skills spelled out in Rhode Island’s academic standards.

In a series of meetings, the Rhode Island education department plans to work with district leaders to craft statewide methods for evaluating the local graduation requirements in the plans that districts have submitted.

Mr. McWalters, the state education commissioner, said he hopes to convince federal officials that the local requirements meet the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires testing in one grade in high school.

Michael Iavarone, a senior at North Providence High, believes that would be good public policy. For his senior project, he worked in the local office of U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, a Rhode Island Democrat.

“What’s a more accurate assessment of how well you’re going to succeed in life?” he said. “How well you’re able to interact with other people, and juggle your life? Or how well you perform on a standardized test?”

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