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Flunking the test

Starting this spring, Rhode Island high school seniors will have to pass the New England Common Assessment Program to get their diploma. The new requirement is the latest effort by the Rhode Island Department of Education to improve low-performing high schools. But does high-stakes testing ensure the state’s students are properly prepared to succeed in a 21st century workforce? A group of local high school students is raising the question.

The Providence Student Union, a student-led advocacy group, last month organized an event at which 50 prominent Rhode Islanders took a shortened version of the math NECAP. Sixty percent of the test-takers — among them elected officials, attorneys, scientists, engineers, reporters, college professors, and directors of leading nonprofits — failed to score at least “partially proficient,” the standard education officials have set for graduation. Under the new rules, many of those 50 successful individuals would not have been allowed to graduate.

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The good news is Rhode Island’s 11th-graders do score slightly better than the adults. In October 2012, 40 percent failed to achieve “partially proficient” for math, and 8 percent fell short in reading. And those who didn’t pass will have another chance to take the test next fall.

The fundamental problem, though, is that the test wasn’t originally designed to be a graduation requirement and isn’t suited for that purpose. Schools need more high standards and accountability, and the NECAP was designed not to evaluate individual students’ proficiency, but to rank the quality of the schools they attend. Unlike tests meant primarily for student assessment, such as the MCAS in Massachusetts, the NECAP expects a certain portion of test-takers to fail. Research suggests that percentage will likely come from low-income, working-class neighborhoods — the students who are least likely to return for a fifth year of high school, even if skipping it means going without a diploma.

Plus, as the adults’ mock exam suggests, the NECAP may not even be testing the right skills. The Rhode Island Department of Education should reconsider its graduation requirement — and not only to salve the embarrassment of so many high-salaried professionals.

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