PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Elementary and middle school students’ overall proficiency on the Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System (RICAS) test improved in math but worsened in English language arts this year, according to scores released early Friday morning by the R.I. Department of Education.

RESULTS: A school-by-school breakdown of scores »

The data showed performance in both subjects remained lower than pre-pandemic levels. Its release followed weeks of controversy as state officials defended their initial plan to release the scores after the election. 

The results show nearly 27% of public school students in grades 3-8 were proficient in math, a 7-point increase over last year’s result of 20%. However, the increased rate is still lower than the nearly 30% of students who were proficient in math in 2019, before the pandemic. (The test was cancelled in 2020.) 

In English language arts the scores dropped below last year, from 33% proficiency to 31%. Prior to the pandemic, 38.5% of students were proficient on the RICAS in English.

Proficiency means students score at least in the “meets expectations” range on the exam, which was taken by nearly 60,000 students in grades 3-8 in the spring. 

Education officials said participation in the exam increased this year compared to 2021, when student absenteeism was high during the pandemic. Participation rates were still lower this year compared to pre-pandemic. 

Younger students saw a bigger drop in their scores, according to the data released Friday. Students in 3rd grade saw an 11-point drop in English from before the pandemic, with 48% of students proficient in 2019 but only 36.5% this year.  

“The 2022 RICAS results show that while a lot of work remains ahead to get our students back up to speed, Rhode Island is on its way to recovery,” Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green said in a statement, which also praised the math scores.

Still, third-graders saw a nearly 10-point increase in their math scores compared to last year, jumping from 25% proficiency to 35%, just one percentage point lower than in 2019. 

In Providence, the largest school district in Rhode Island and which is currently under state control, just under 10% of students in grades 3-8 are proficient in math, according to the scores. The percentage of proficient students increased three percentage points from last year, but is still less than the 12% rate in 2019. 

In English language arts, 13% of Providence students met or exceeded expectations on the test, a slight dip from last year and four percentage points lower than 2019.

“We’re not at all happy, however we’re excited that we’re moving in the right direction,” Infante-Green said in an interview, noting that it can take 3-5 years for a new curriculum to start to show results.

Central Falls saw the worst scores on the exam of any other district, with 5% of students meeting expectations in English, and less than 5% in math. (RIDE suppresses data for confidentiality reasons if less than 5% of students are proficient.)

“We’re looking at Central Falls very, very, very carefully,” Infante-Green said when asked if a state takeover is possible in that city. “They were one of the most impacted districts with the pandemic.”

The expected release date of the scores was initially set for October, but RIDE officials said last month they would not be ready until mid-November, prompting a firestorm of accusations that Gov. Dan McKee was holding onto the scores until after the election. 

McKee revealed that the scores were ready for “imminent” release during a televised debate on Thursday night. His Republican challenger, Ashley Kalus, had repeatedly accused McKee of holding the scores “hostage” until after the election.

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RIDE provided varying explanations over the course of October as to why the scores couldn’t be released until after the election. They included vendor timelines, a shortage of data analysts, and a new feature to provide informational videos to families to help understand their child’s performance. 

Those individualized scores and videos will be sent to districts on Nov. 10, according to RIDE. 

In an interview Friday, Infante-Green said it became clear this week the scores would be ready sooner.

“We had to double up meeting with the superintendents,” Infante-Green said, explaining that she briefed district leaders over two days instead of four in order to get the scores out faster.

The scores were delivered to RIDE from the department’s outside test vendor, Cognia, on Sept. 12, but McKee said he had not seen the scores until this week, when he was briefed by the Education Department.

In Massachusetts, where the same exam is taken, the initial MCAS data was received on Sept. 8 and released publicly on Sept. 29, according to Jacqueline Reis, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. 

Reis said Gov. Charlie Baker was briefed on the scores on Sept. 21, two days after Cognia delivered the “post-discrepancy” data file to the education department.

RIDE separately released SAT and PSAT scores for high school students last week, showing a slight drop compared to last year and results below pre-pandemic levels.  

Jacqueline Gomersall contributed to this report.