Everything you need to know about the 2018 RICAS results

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island’s latest standardized test results for public schools are in, and they’re not pretty.

On Thursday, the R.I. Department of Education released a school-by-school breakdown of outcomes on the Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System exam, giving parents, educators and other stakeholders their first glimpse at proficiency rates in English Language Arts and math under the state’s new annual exam for students in grades three through eight.

So how do things stack up? Here’s an overview.

(Click here to view proficiency rates by school)

RELATED: Education commissioner calls RICAS results sobering »

This was the first year of the RICAS exam.
If your child was in the seventh or eighth grade last year and has always attended public school in Rhode Island, your head is probably spinning from the number of standardized test acronyms you’ve had to remember since they were in the third grade. First there was NECAP (New England Common Assessment Program); then there was PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers); and now there is RICAS. It was only a few years ago that the PARCC exam was pitched as a game changer because it was aligned to the Common Core State Standards and nearly half of the states in the country were planning to use it (finally giving experts the chance to compare Newport, Rhode Island, to Newport, Kentucky). But a combination of factors – including politics and cost – led most of the states to back away from the PARCC and Rhode Island officials chose to begin using the same exam as Massachusetts (finally giving experts the chance to compare Glocester to Gloucester). Beginning last year, all Rhode Island public school students in grades three through eight take the RICAS, while high school students are assessed based on their performance on the PSAT and SAT.

The test may have changed, but the results are pretty consistent.
Similar to the PARCC exam, the RICAS test is split between English Language Arts (ELA) and math, and is taken using a computer. Scores can range from 440 to a 560 for each section, with students needing to score at least 500 to be considered meeting expectations, or proficient. Students who earn at least a 530 are exceeding expectations. On the lower end of the performance scale, students are classified as either not meeting expectations at all or partially meeting expectations. On the ELA section, 34% of Rhode Island’s students in grades three through eight are considered proficient. For math, 27% of students met or exceeded expectations. Here’s a scarier stat: more than 14,000 students – 22% – did not meet any expectations in math. On the ELA side, just under 20% did not meet expectations. The overall numbers are down slightly compared to results from the PARCC test in recent years, but the broader story remains the same: the vast majority of Rhode Island students are not proficient in math or English.

Rhode Island trails far behind Massachusetts.
No one who follows education closely in Rhode Island will be surprised by this, but because the two states are taking the same exam, state leaders believe the RICAS gives them an apples-to-apples comparison to Massachusetts. For top line results, 51% of Massachusetts students were proficient in ELA and 48% were proficient in math, which means they were 17 percentage points better in English and 21 percentage points better in math. Rhode Island didn’t come within 10 percentage points of Massachusetts at any grade level on either section of the exam. Rhode Island’s statewide averages are on par with Fall River (34% ELA, 30% math), which is one of the poorest and lowest-performing communities in the Bay State. So what is Massachusetts doing that Rhode Island isn’t? Education Commissioner Ken Wagner acknowledged there are some funding disparities between the two states – a larger percentage of overall education funding in Massachusetts comes from the state than in Rhode Island – but he said he considers the key difference to be that officials in Massachusetts have stuck to a plan to have high expectations for their students for several decades while Rhode Island has not been as consistent with its plans.

3rd grade scores give Rhode Island some hope.
If you’re looking for a silver lining in these results, check out the youngest students to take the test. For both parts of the exam, the smallest gap in results between Rhode Island and Massachusetts comes at the third-grade level. On the ELA section, 40% of third graders scored proficiently (compared to 52% in Massachusetts). On the math section, 35% of those students met or exceeded expectations (compared to 50% in Massachusetts). It’s worth noting that third graders entered school at a time when the Common Core had become common place, so there has been a clearer set of expectations for what they should know compared to say, high school seniors. Wagner also pointed to more students having participated in pre-K and full-day kindergarten programs in recent years, as well as Gov. Gina Raimondo setting a goal to have 75% of third graders reading at grade level by 2025.

The 70% club includes schools from 11 communities.
At least one school in Barrington, Bristol-Warren, Chariho, Cumberland, Jamestown, New Shoreham, North Kingstown, North Smithfield, Providence, Smithfield, and South Kingstown posted proficiency rates of 70% or better on the ELA section of the test. Barrington was best with four schools (Barrington Middle, Primrose Hill School, Nayatt Elementary School and Sowams Elementary School) on that list. Others included Ashaway Elementary School and Hope Valley Elementary School in Chariho, Rockwell School in Bristol-Warren, Community School in Cumberland, Melrose School in Jamestown, Block Island School, Hamilton Elementary School in North Kingstown, North Smithfield Elementary School, Achievement First Iluminar Mayoral Academy in Providence, Raymond C. LaPerche School in Smithfield and Kingston Hill Academy in South Kingstown.

Achievement First posted impressive results.
Remember the controversy surrounding a proposed expansion of the Achievement First charter schools in Providence? Well, something is working in those classrooms. At the Iluminar Mayoral Academy, 80% of students met or exceeded expectations on the ELA section of the exam and 76% were proficient in math. The school is still new, so the only students eligible to take the RICAS exam were third graders. While the results weren’t quite as strong at Achievement First’s other elementary school (41% ELA, 49% math) or its middle school (63% ELA, 49% math), students at those schools still exceeded the state average on both sections of the test. Commissioner Wagner said Achievement First is a “proven concept” and called on Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza – who chairs the board of Achievement First – to sign off on a larger expansion for the organization. Elorza has repeatedly said he will not allow for a broader expansion until he is presented with a way for his school district to be made whole for the millions of dollars it stands to lose from sending more students to charter schools.

Rhode Island still has huge achievement gaps.

Urban districts continue to struggle.
While Rhode Island’s suburban school districts posted results that were comparable to Massachusetts as a whole, fewer than 15% of students in Central Falls (10% ELA, 7% math), Providence (14% ELA, 10% math) and Woonsocket (13% ELA, 11% math) met or exceeded expectations on either section of the RICAS exam. At least one third of students in each of those districts didn’t meet expectations on ELA or math at all. Pawtucket, another urban district, fared slightly better: 20% of students there scored proficiently in ELA and 17% were proficient in math.

The test results came later than usual.
During the final weeks of her re-election campaign, Gov. Gina Raimondo faced criticism from some of her opponents for allegedly delaying the release of the results of the RICAS exam. But Commissioner Wagner claims politics had nothing to do with the timing. Aside from needing extra time to review the first batch of RICAS scores, he said the same company is used to grade tests in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, but Massachusetts is served first. In the future, Wagner said he thinks results will probably be available in late September.

RICAS results will be a factor when school report cards are released.
Rhode Island has already started implementing its new accountability plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), but it hasn’t quite hit the public’s radar yet. That will change next month when every public school in the state will be assigned a rank between one and five stars as part of a new report card system that will be published on the R.I. Department of Education’s website. The stars will be determined based largely on results of the RICAS and growth rates from previous exams. Other factors include chronic absenteeism rates for students and teachers as well as graduation and suspension rates.

State leaders: we need to stick a plan.
There is no way to spin the underwhelming results, but Commissioner Wagner said he believes the foundation has been laid to begin turning around Rhode Island schools. He pointed to a new set of teacher certification standards the state is expected to begin implementing next year as well as significant investments being made for the state’s youngest students. Barbara Cottam, who chairs the R.I. Board of Education, said Rhode Island needs to stick to a plan the way Massachusetts has for more than 20 years. “The bar is set high, and we have a tremendous amount of work ahead of us, but with consistency, leadership, and strong support from our partners in the field, we will stay the course, move the needle, and meet the goals set before us,” she said. Daniel McConaghy, who chairs the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education, said he’s confident the state’s use of the RICAS in grades three through eight and the PSAT and SAT in high school will “bring consistency, stability, and accountability to the system, so we can focus on the work in the classroom that will drive our performance forward over the next 20 years.”

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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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