Dan McGowan

12 things to know about Rhode Island's new school rating system

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The R.I. Department of Education unveiled its online school report card system Wednesday, offering a detailed look at performance, demographics and spending data for every public school in the state.

The report cards and the state’s new star rating system for each school are part of Rhode Island’s plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal education law that was approved by Congress in 2015.

Here’s a breakdown of the key things to know about the report cards and the ratings.

Every school has a report card.
We want you to read every word of this story, but we won’t be upset if you click on your school’s report card and dive into all the important information the state has just published. While most of this data was already public, the report card offers a parent-friendly, one-stop shop that allows you to review everything from standardized test results and graduation rates to per-pupil spending and absenteeism rates at every school in the state. You can also compare schools and districts based on every piece of data that is published. On the state-level page, you can even review college enrollment information about recent high school graduates or check out a complete breakdown of federal School Improvement Grant spending.

Schools are rated on a star system.
Rather than going with an A-F system or using the old classification system (commended, leading, typical, warning, focus and priority), Rhode Island has assigned every school in the state a star rating. The top-performing schools get five stars and the lowest-performing ones receive one star. Outcomes on the state’s annual standardized test – RICAS for students in grades three through eight and the PSAT or SAT in high school – are heavy drivers of the ratings, with schools receiving points based on proficiency and growth rates on those exams. But tests aren’t the only factor. Graduation rates, absenteeism rates for both students and teachers and out-of-school suspension rates are also figured into the formula. Below is the scoring rubric and you can click here to see how points are assigned for each category.

There are 21 five-star schools.
Let’s start with the good news. Twenty-one schools from 11 communities earned the highest possible rating, which basically means they excel in almost every category. (The state set a high bar by prohibiting some excellent schools from earning a five-star rating if they happen to have low-performing subgroups, like students with disabilities.) This year’s best-of-the-best are in Barrington (Barrington Middle School, Hampden Meadows School, Barrington High School, Nayatt School and Primrose Hill School); Bristol-Warren (Guiteras School and Rockwell School); Chariho (Ashaway Elementary School and Hope Valley Elementary School); Cumberland (Community School and North Cumberland Middle School); East Greenwich (East Greenwich High School, Frenchtown School, and Meadowbrook Farms School); Exeter-West Greenwich (Wawaloam School); Jamestown (Melrose School); Narragansett (Narragansett Elementary School); North Kingstown (Wickford Middle School and North Kingstown Senior High School); Providence (Classical High School); and South Kingstown (Kingston Hill Academy).

RI is required to identify its lowest-performing schools.
Federal law has forced states to name the lowest-performing 5% of schools for many years, and ESSA is no different. But while the state has 36 one-star schools, only 24 of them qualify as part of the federal mandate. (The state relied on test growth rates to identify the bottom 5%, which are being called Comprehensive Support and Improvement schools.) The CSI schools are one in Chariho (Chariho Alternative Learning Academy); Cranston (NEL/CPS Construction Career Academy); the DCYF school; three in Pawtucket (Samuel Slater Middle School, Lyman B. Goff Middle School and Charles E. Shea High School); 13 in Providence (Dr. Jorge Alvarez High School, Alfred Lima, Sr. Elementary School, Carl G. Lauro Elementary School, Juanita Sanchez Complex, Nathan Bishop Middle School, Gilbert Stuart Middle School, Roger Williams Middle School, Hope High School, Mount Pleasant High School, Robert L Bailey IV, Elementary School, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School, Governor Christopher DelSesto Middle School and West Broadway Middle School); the R.I. Nurses Institute Middle College Charter High School; the R.I. School for the Deaf; the Sheila Skip Nowell Leadership Academy schools in Central Falls and Providence; and one in Woonsocket (Harris School).

The CSI schools must improve or changes will occur.
If you have followed public education in Rhode Island for a while, the list of lowest-performing schools probably doesn’t surprise you. Most of them were classified as focus or priority schools under the old rating system and most of them have tried and failed to make improvements in the past. Under the new system, schools that were previously rated as priority schools and now are CSI schools will have two years to make improvements or they will be required to undergo a significant intervention. (If this is the first time a school is in the bottom 5%, they have four years to make improvements.) The possible redesign models include: Empowerment, which is designed to give more autonomy to principals and teachers; Restart, which allows a school to be reopened by a charter management organization or another state-approved managing entity (and has already been an option for struggling schools); Small Schools of Choice, which reorganizes big schools into smaller ones – approximately 100 students per grade – and emphasizes personalized learning for students; LEA Proposed Redesign, which will allow school districts (LEAs, or local education agencies) to design their own alternative model; and Closure, which shutters a failing school and relocates students to schools that are not identified as needing intervention. The CSI schools are also eligible for School Improvement Grant money, which comes from the federal government.

Districts must create community advisory boards if they have CSI schools.
Look out Pawtucket, Providence and Woonsocket: another layer of a bureaucracy is coming to your community. That’s because districts that have at least one CSI schools are required to establish an advisory board comprised of stakeholders that “best represent their community and will successfully leverage the broader community to help support and advise the school improvement process.” The goal is to give community members a seat at the table when decisions are made.

Growth is all the rage right now.
While it’s totally reasonable for parents or other members of the public to focus on proficiency rates on standardized tests, educators appear to be more interested in growth rates on those exams. Why? Because growth tells you stories you didn’t already know. Example: it didn’t take the RICAS to show that Providence students have low proficiency numbers in English and math. But growth rates show a handful of elementary schools in the city – William D'Abate, Reservoir Avenue School, Pleasant View School, Frank D. Spaziano Elementary School and Webster Avenue School – are making huge strides in both of those areas. (They are all three-star schools, which means Classical is the only Providence school rated higher.)  Other schools in the state showing high levels of growth in ELA included Raymond C. LaPerche School in Smithfield, Brown Avenue School in Johnston and Community School in Cumberland. On the math side, some of the schools showing the most growth were Ashaway and Hope Valley Elementary Schools in Chariho, Achievement First Providence Mayoral Academy and Flora S. Curtis Memorial School in Pawtucket.

Central Falls has no CSI schools.
One of the most surprising things about the list of the lowest-performing schools is that none of them are in Central Falls, which posted district-wide proficiency rates of just 10% for English language arts and 7% in math on the RICAS exam. So how did that happen? Because students showed decent growth rates in testing, particularly on the ELA side. Education Commissioner Ken Wagner said this proves that schools can quickly move out of the bottom 5% - both the middle and high schools in Central Falls were previously listed as priority schools – but he cautioned that they can move back into the CSI cohort just as easily if they don’t continue to show growth.

Rhode Island schools are failing students with disabilities.
The state has identified 131 schools that are in need of additional targeted support and improvement based on students in one or more subgroups performing at low levels. The majority of those schools – 89% - aren’t doing enough to close achievement gaps between students who don’t have disabilities and those who do. In some cases, schools have achievement gaps in more than one subgroup, including different races or for those living in poverty. Even some schools that are traditionally considered among the best in the state – like Mount Hope High School in Bristol-Warren, Exeter-West Greenwich Junior High and Blackstone Valley Prep Elementary School – are on the targeted list. 

At least 20% of teachers at 14 schools were chronically absent.
Rhode Island is one of the only states in the country that is measuring teacher absenteeism as part of its school rating system. Unlike some of the national statistics on teacher absenteeism, the state didn’t count absences for professional development or if teachers had pre-approved absences longer than five days (think maternity leave). Chronic absenteeism in Rhode Island is defined as missing at least 10% of the school year, which equals 18 days in a 180-day school year. In 14 schools (mostly in Providence), at least 20% of the teachers were labeled chronically absent last year. The Leviton Dual Language School in the city is the only school in Rhode Island where at least 30% of teachers missed 10% of the year. On the bright side, 60 schools across Rhode Island had zero teachers labeled chronically absent.    

Urban high schools have sky-high student absenteeism rates.
When it comes to students who missed at least 10% of school year, the numbers are through the roof in some schools in Providence, Woonsocket and Central Falls. Nearly all of Providence high schools – except Classical – had chronic absenteeism rates above 40%. (Even Classical was 30%.) The only school in the state that posted chronic absenteeism rates below 2% were South Side Charter School in Providence, East Greenwich High School, Community School in Cumberland, Fogarty Memorial School in Glocester and Raymond C. LaPerche School in Smithfield.

Some schools have high suspension rates.
Student discipline is another factor when it comes to the school rating system: schools that issue fewer out-of-school suspensions per 100 students are awarded more points than schools that have high suspension rates. (The idea here is that the fewer the out-of-school suspensions, the more likely a student is to be in school learning.) Of the traditional public schools, West Broadway Middle School in Providence (54.6 per 100) and Hamlet Middle School in Woonsocket (51.9 per 100) had the highest suspension rates. Of the charter schools, Achievement First Providence Mayoral Academy had a suspension rate of 47.5 per 100. At 72 schools – mostly elementary – there were zero out-of-school suspensions last year.

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan


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