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Report from the Commissioner

April 2006

Dear Fellow Rhode Islanders:

This has been an exciting year – a time of transition for public education in Rhode Island. Last fall, after two years of planning and preparation, we introduced a new set of state assessments for all of our elementary schools and middle schools. These new state tests are groundbreaking in many ways. For the first time, the tests are directly linked to a set of academic standards that were developed by Rhode Island educators. These standards specify what students should know and be able to do in each subject and at each grade level. The tests measure whether our students have met these standards.

These new tests were developed in collaboration with two other New England states – New Hampshire and Vermont. This project represents the first multistate assessment collaboration in the nation. By pooling our resources and expertise, we were able to create a better set of tests than any one of us could have developed alone. We will have a bigger collection of assessment data to help us analyze the results. And through economies of scale we saved money – about $5 million over the course of the contract with our testing company.

The results of these tests will be released this spring in several stages, and we will publish School Report Cards containing these results in the fall of 2006. The current issue of Information Works!, however, contains assessment results for high schools only, as state tests were administered only at the high-school level in the 2004-05 school year. So let me take a moment to tell you about changes under way in Rhode Island high schools.

High Schools in Rhode Island: A Status Report

Though test scores at our high schools have been on the rise for the past five years, the Board of Regents has had a long-standing concern that our high schools were not fulfilling the Regents’ mission, which is to “ensure that all students achieve at the high levels needed to lead fulfilling and productive lives, to compete in academic and employment settings, and to contribute to society.”

The Regents convened the first Rhode Island High School Summit in 2000 and a second summit in 2002, in order to consider in their entirety the issues of high-school education and graduation requirements. They called together secondary-school educators, business leaders, and college professors to ask: What should happen in high school? What should students have to know and be able to do in order to graduate? How can we be sure that our graduates are well prepared for higher education and the world of work?

These summits culminated in the Regents’ High School Regulations of 2003, which are now in effect. These regulations completely change the nature of high schools in our state.

Beginning with the Class of 2008, this year’s sophomore class, in order to graduate all students must demonstrate that they are proficient in six core subject areas: English, mathematics, science, social studies, technology, and the arts. Our graduating seniors will demonstrate what they know and what they are able to do – sometimes this is called “applied learning” – through such means as a senior project, an electronic portfolio that encompasses all four years’ of their high-school work, an exhibition such as a performance or presentation, or end-of-course exams.

The Rhode Island Diploma System = Tests Plus

Many people ask why we do not have so-called “high-stakes tests” in Rhode Island – tests that students must pass in order to graduate. In Rhode Island, we now have what I call a high-stakes system. Our system begins with standards (which you can read on the RIDE website, http://www.ride.ri.gov/standards/gle/). These standards tell us what students need to know at each grade level and they form the basis for every public-school curriculum. As part of our system of accountability and public reporting, we administer state tests to determine whether students have met these standards. But passing a state test is not enough to show that you’re proficient. Therefore we have multiple measures by which students will have to demonstrate proficiency.

In Rhode Island, a score on a single test can’t prevent you from graduating, for all students will have multiple ways to demonstrate that they have achieved proficiency. But a good score on a single test is not a free pass, either. Students who do well on the state test still have to demonstrate what they know and what they can do with their learning. That’s why we sometimes call our diploma system “Tests Plus.”

Rising Scores, but Gaps Persist: The Three Rhode Islands

As you can see from these graphs, high-school test scores have been rising gradually since 2001, in both English language arts and mathematics.

Rhode Island High Schools:
Percent Proficient in English Language Arts


Rhode Island High Schools:
Percent Proficient in Mathematics

The trends in elementary schools and middle schools are similar: despite the popular misperception, test scores in Rhode Island have been improving, particularly in mathematics.

But these graphs also give you another picture. Talking about “Rhode Island test scores” tells only part of the story. You can see in the above graphs that there are really what I call “The Three Rhode Islands”: urban schools, the urban-ring schools, and suburban schools. Every graph of our state test scores presents the same picture: The urban-ring schools are right at the state average, the suburban schools are performing well above the average, and the urban schools are well below the average. The lines are moving parallel to one another, but they are separated by performance gaps. These gaps must be closed.

National reports show that Rhode Island test scores are at the national average for reading and a little below the average for mathematics. But, again, that’s not the complete picture. The graph below shows a breakdown of the results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), sometimes called “The Nation’s Report Card,” administered by the U.S. Department of Education:


NAEP: The Nation's Report Card
Grade 8 - Mathematics

NAEP: The Nation's Report Card, 2005
Grade 8 - Mathematics - By Type of District


The NAEP tests sort districts into three groups: Central City, Urban Fringe, and Rural. You can see from the bar graphs that the students in our “rural” districts perform better than their counterparts in the Northeast and nationwide. The students in the urban fringe, which makes up most of the state, perform almost exactly the same as their counterparts elsewhere. The students in our urban districts, however, perform worse than students in urban districts in the region and nationwide.

The lesson I draw from this is that many Rhode Island students are performing very well, but if we hope to improve our statewide test scores we must continue to target education aid toward our urban districts and we must support these districts in their school-improvement efforts. In the past two years, the state has been actively and aggressively engaged with our districts of greatest need. We have focused intensively on the Providence Public Schools, particularly in regard to high schools and middle schools, and we have assigned staff members to work with the Central Falls, Pawtucket, and Woonsocket schools as well.

Information Works!: The State Report Card

Information Works! 2006 serves as the official Rhode Island State Report Card, as required by the No Child Left Behind Act. In this report, you will find state-level data as well as many tables that give data for all schools and all districts. If you’re interested in more detailed information on any school or district, you can read the individual school and district reports online, at www.infoworks.ride.uri.edu

As you look through Information Works! 2006, you will see how well our high-school students are performing on state assessments. You will also find reports that summarize the findings of our annual SALT Surveys of students, teachers, and parents regarding instructional practices, school climate, and parental engagement. And you will find charts and tables on school spending and municipal finances.

Information Works!, now in its ninth year, is the result of a successful collaboration between RIDE and our partners at the National Center on Public Education and Social Policy, at the University of Rhode Island. Since 1997, there has been basic policy agreement on education, shared by the legislature, the Regents, and the Governor. I hope that you will use this report to become more engaged in public education, no matter what your community of interest. School improvement is a challenge for all of us – parents, teachers, and students of course, but also business leaders, labor leaders, and community members. It may be a cliché, but our students do indeed represent our future. Let’s work together to ensure the best possible public education for all of them.


Peter McWalters

Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education