PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Education has suddenly shot to a top spot on the State House agenda for 2019 as Rhode Island leaders grapple with why students here performed far worse on a new standardized test than their peers in Massachusetts.

Smith Hill’s three top Democrats — Gov. Gina Raimondo, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio — all highlighted the issue as a key priority this week, with the two legislative leaders both taking shots at Raimondo’s Department of Education for its performance.

The new Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System (RICAS) exam showed only 34% of Rhode Island students in grades three through eight were proficient in English language arts and just 27% were proficient in math; in Massachusetts, 51% of students were proficient in English and 47% were proficient in math.

The Education Department and its commissioner, Ken Wagner, have already been in the crosshairs of Ruggerio and other influential senators such as Cumberland Democrat Ryan Pearson. The Senate president sent a letter to Wagner last month chastising his department for sloppy work on a report mandated by the legislature.

“The Senate is insisting on a meaningful comparison of our education system with the system in Massachusetts,” Ruggerio said in his prepared remarks for the opening of the legislative session Tuesday.

Mattiello described the RICAS results as “totally unacceptable” in his own prepared speech, saying Wagner’s department “must do better.” He added, “We will hold them accountable!”

The tough talk comes amid State House buzz that Wagner’s days in Rhode Island could be numbered. Asked Wednesday whether Raimondo still has confidence in the education commissioner or if she plans to make a change, her spokesperson Josh Block would only say that the governor “has no additional staffing changes to announce right now.”

Personnel aside, Mattiello said the House already plans to adopt some of “the best practices that are working so well in Massachusetts.” He singled out Democratic Rep. Gregg Amore, a history teacher in East Providence, as a House member who is shaping his thinking on education policy.

“We must look to adopt a long-term plan like other successful states,” Mattiello said. “We must look at a statewide curriculum and evaluate our graduation requirements.” (State lawmakers were moving in the other direction just a few years ago, asking the Department of Education to hold off on tying a diploma to a test score.)

House Health, Education and Welfare Committee Chairman Joe McNamara, D-Warwick, introduced legislation Thursday to begin fleshing out Mattiello’s comments. One bill would require school districts with high student absenteeism to create task forces charged with tackling the problem, while another would require the Department of Education to develop new statewide curriculum standards.

In her inaugural address, Raimondo recommitted to policies she promoted during her successful re-election campaign last year. “We won’t stop until our students are set up to achieve their dreams from pre-K through high school and beyond,” she said, alluding to her proposals for universal pre-K and tuition-free classes at the state’s four-year colleges. She is expected to offer more details in her State of the State speech on Jan. 15.

Outside of state government, another high-profile initiative is the Rhode Island Foundation’s series of talks between more than two dozen education stakeholders, including state and local officials, union leaders and advocates, to seek a consensus on new K-12 policies that could help the state close the gap with Massachusetts. Results of that effort are expected sometime in the next few months.

Ted Nesi ( covers politics and the economy for He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

Dan McGowan contributed to this report.