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Misguided optimism in Providence schools

Superintendent Javier Montañez says he is ‘excited’ about the latest RICAS results. Really?

Providence schools Superintendent Javier Montañez.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

We tell kids that if they don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

Here’s a modest proposal for Providence schools Superintendent Javier Montañez: With test scores as dismal as those his district reported last week, maybe don’t go around waving pom-poms about student performance.

You’d think Montañez would be in witness protection after the Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System (RICAS) test results showed that just 15 percent of students in Grades 3 through 8 are reading at grade level, and a disheartening 13 percent are proficient in math. Instead, he issued a statement that just didn’t track.

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“We are excited by the promising results of the latest RICAS scores - but know we must keep working hard to improve achievement across the board,” Montañez said. “I am thrilled to see growth district-wide indicating that we are making progress.”

Excited. Thrilled.

For whom, exactly?

Look, I can appreciate school leaders who want to be encouraging and look for silver linings. After all, Providence improved by 3 percentage points in English language arts and 3 percentage points in math, essentially matching RICAS growth numbers statewide.

But the city’s proficiency rates are less than half the state average in both subjects, so the district needs exponential growth to hit any of the goals in its state turnaround plan.

And when you dig in to the statistics just a little, the results are even more alarming.

Only four schools in the district experienced what the Rhode Island Department of Education considers statistically significant growth compared to the 2022 test scores. There are also four Providence middle schools whose data can’t be reported because so few students were proficient in English or math that it’s possible they could be easily identified, which is against the law.

So when I spoke with Montañez on Wednesday morning, I was hoping he might be a little more clear-eyed about the results. Maybe some overzealous communications staffer wrote his quote, and he just didn’t want to rock the boat by changing it to something more reflective of how he really feels.

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Nope. He believes it.

“We need to acknowledge all our students who have made growth,” Montañez told me. “I look at all growth as moving in the right direction.”

I hear that, but let’s put this into context. The success that Providence saw this year is like a two-yard gain on first down after a false start penalty. Our students still haven’t returned to the modest 17 percent proficiency rate in English from before the pandemic -- four years ago. At the time, every government leader under the sun was calling that an education crisis. The state literally took control of the school system back then in part because of the test scores.

Montañez was quick to acknowledge that “we still have a lot of work to do,” but he said students and teachers deserve a pat on the back when they show signs of success.

He points out that Providence has added 30 minutes to the school day, doubled the number of teachers who are certified to teach English as a second language, and is offering alternative pathways to earn a diploma to students who might not be able to attend school during the traditional hours.

The improved test scores will come in time, he maintains.

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He said that multilingual learners are starting to show more signs of success, and it’s true that students who finish those programs now have the same proficiency rates in English as students for whom English has always been their first language.

Montañez’s next big focus is the same as Governor Dan McKee’s: school attendance.

During the 2022-2023 school year, 50 percent of students were chronically absent, which means they missed at least 18 days of school. At a recent state Council on Elementary and Secondary Education meeting, Montañez said that was an improvement from the previous year. He called it “huge.”

“If I had a magic wand, the first thing I would do is make sure that everyone is in school,” Montañez said.

He doesn’t have a wand, and I told him that I worry that the district (and the state, by the way) is going to rely on silly gimmicks that will have no long-term impact on attendance. Like having celebrities make phone calls to kids to encourage them to go to school or having Patriots players show up for a quick visit.

Ten years ago, the rapper Kendrick Lamar got to play principal for the day at Mount Pleasant High School because the students there won an attendance contest. Afterward, Mount Pleasant went back to having some of the lowest attendance rates in the state. Through two months of school this year, 43 percent of students are on track to be chronically absent.

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Montañez said more substantive efforts are underway, like having attendance teams knocking on doors and calling parents at home to remind them that their kids need to be in school.

I admire that Montañez still has the relentless optimism and energy of the successful elementary school principal he was before he was plucked to become superintendent. He also has a life story worthy of a Disney film, having been a homeless dropout who now runs the school system that too often failed him 40 years ago.

The trouble is that the district’s test results haven’t budged since The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board called it an “education horror show,” and the urgency to improve rapidly isn’t immediately evident.

“I’ve said this since I started – give me the opportunity and the time,” Montañez said. “Providence will be the destination for education.”

Montañez does deserve more time. But he should be more honest about the current state of the district. There isn’t much to be excited or thrilled about.


Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him @danmcgowan.