PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Students’ proficiency in math and English language arts dropped significantly on the Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System test this year, the first time they have taken the exam since the start of the pandemic.
The RICAS results, released Thursday, also show a drop in participation in the mandatory standardized tests, which were administered in person this past spring. (Only students in 3rd through 8th grades take the RICAS, while 10th- and 11th-graders take the PSAT and SAT, respectively.)
A total of 33% of Rhode Island students who took the RICAS this year were deemed proficient in English language arts (ELA), meaning they scored at “meets expectations” or higher. That was down from 38% in 2019.
Only 20% of students who took the test were proficient in math, down from nearly 30% in 2019.
R.I. Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green said math scores saw a bigger decline than ELA ones because math was harder to master over distance learning compared to English and literacy.
Infante-Green had already tempered expectations about the results before Thursday, predicting scores would drop because of interrupted schooling and the challenge of remote learning during the pandemic. The tests were cancelled in 2020 because of COVID, so 2021 was the first time the students sat the exam since spring of 2019.
“Like communities across the country, we knew this was coming,” Infante-Green told reporters in a briefing about the scores. “We had been planning ways to remedy the impact of the pandemic and accelerate student learning.”
Rhode Island’s scores remain lower than neighboring Massachusetts, which takes a comparable test called the MCAS. But MCAS scores saw an even steeper drop in math than Rhode Island, going from 49% proficiency in 2019 to 33% this year.
In ELA, students in Massachusetts went from 52% proficiency on the MCAS in 2019 to 46% this year.
Central Falls was the public school district with the lowest overall RICAS scores, with only 7.7% of students proficient in ELA and fewer than 5% proficient in math. (The latter number was so low that it caused the exact data to be suppressed for confidentiality reasons.) West Warwick and Woonsocket also had math proficiency rates below 5%.
In ELA, Woonsocket had a 12% proficiency rate, while West Warwick had a 20% rate.
Providence, the state’s largest school district and currently in the middle of a state intervention, was near the bottom of the RICAS pack with 6.8% proficiency in math and 14% in ELA. The only students who scored worse in ELA than Providence ones were from Woonsocket, Trinity Academy for the Performing Arts (11%), and Central Falls.
Still, four Providence elementary schools managed to increase their scores since before the pandemic: Vartan Gregorian, Anthony Carnevale, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Carl G. Lauro schools all saw an increase in ELA proficiency.
While Rhode Island’s urban schools generally score lower than the suburbs on standardized tests, even some suburban schools that typically score much higher than the statewide average saw precipitous drops.
Wakefield Elementary School in South Kingstown, for example, went from 64% proficiency in math in 2019 to 30% this year. (ELA scores at that school decreased by a much smaller margin.) The largest drop in RICAS math proficiency was at RISE Prep Mayoral Academy in Woonsocket, which went from 66% proficiency in 2019 to 22% this year.
A total of 31 elementary and middle schools had their math scores suppressed for privacy reasons because fewer than 5% of students met or exceeded expectations on the test. That means between 95% and 100% of students in those schools are not considered to be at grade level in math.
Another 16 high schools similarly had their math SAT scores suppressed because fewer than 5% of 11th-grade students achieved the “college and career ready” proficiency score, which is at least 530 out of 800. (Those students are now seniors in high school.)
Statewide, the SAT proficiency rates in math were 26%, compared to 31% in 2019, while 48% of 11th-graders were proficient in ELA on the SAT, compared to 50% in 2019. (The proficiency score for the ELA portion of the SAT is 480 out of 800.)
Infante-Green said students who were learning mostly in person scored higher than those who were learning mostly from home, reinforcing the state’s effort to keep students in classrooms this year. (On Wednesday the Department of Education announced a pilot “test-to-stay” program that will allow students to remain in school rather than quarantining when potentially exposed to the coronavirus.)
Despite the known disruptions in learning, Infante-Green said state officials felt it was still important to administer the full tests to get a “new baseline.”
“We wanted to know where we are,” she said.
Participation in the RICAS dropped about 10 percentage points, which Infante-Green said was because some virtual learners did not show up to school to take the test. Chronic absenteeism also soared during the pandemic as students and their families were impacted by the virus and economic conditions.
“There was a lot of concern and fear,” Infante-Green said.
The scores and participation rates won’t be used to rank schools under federal accountability guidelines, Infante-Green said, because of the ongoing pandemic.
There were also significant drops among multilingual learners — also known as English learners — as well as differently-abled students and homeless students, groups that already had lower proficiency rates than their peers.
The percentage of multilingual learners that are proficient in math for their grade levels dropped nearly in half for ELA, from 7.9% to 4.3%, and for math dropped from 6.3% to 2.3%.
“It’s tragic, the impact that the pandemic has had on that population,” Infante-Green said.
RIDE already convened a task force earlier this year to research strategies for dealing with learning loss from the pandemic. The group, called the Learning, Equity and Accelerated Pathways (LEAP) task force, released a report in April which recommended expanded summer learning and targeted supports using federal coronavirus relief funds.
The American Rescue Plan Act has also funneled $415 million of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief III (ESSER III) dollars into Rhode Island, with allocations for each school district. A plan from each district on how they intend to spend the money is due to RIDE in December.
“Every district is putting together a cohesive plan and we have money to support that plan,” Infante Green said. “It’s still a cause for a concern, but it was a pandemic. … It didn’t just happen in Rhode Island.”
Plans could include extending the school day or bringing in additional math tutors, she listed as examples.
While the proficiency rates for the RICAS and SAT exams all went down statewide for both math and ELA, some individual schools saw increases, particularly in ELA.
The Wilbur and McMahon School in Little Compton saw a 14-point jump in RICAS ELA, from 47% proficiency in 2019 to 61% proficiency this year. Narragansett Elementary School saw a 10-point jump, from 58% proficiency in 2019 to 68% this year.
Very few schools saw increases in math proficiency, but one major outlier was the Sowams Elementary School in Barrington, which went from 45% to 71% proficiency in math between 2019 and 2021.
Sowams had the overall highest proficiency rating among all Rhode Island public schools in 2021, while Fort Barton Elementary School took the top spot for ELA, with 77% of students meeting or exceeding expectations on the test.
Barrington took the top spot overall, with 54% proficiency in math and 68% in ELA.
Significant drops were also seen at charter schools, including the Achievement First schools that typically outperform public school students in their cities. The charter system’s four schools which took the RICAS saw a 22-point drop in ELA, to 35% proficiency, and a 37-point drop in math, to 16.5%.
Steph Machado (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter covering Providence, politics and more for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.
Eli Sherman contributed to this report.