RICAS Test Results: Ken Wagner Is Going to Fail Rhode Island’s Children


Anybody not quite buying the state’s nothing-to-see-here explanation for delaying the release of Rhode Island students’ results on the new RICAS test has a bit more justification today:

Rhode Island’s school districts performed so poorly on a new standardized test that students in neighboring Seekonk outpaced them in nearly every district. …

On average, Rhode Island students scored 17 percentage points lower than Massachusetts in English and 20 points lower in math.

If Rhode Island were a single school district in Massachusetts, it would fall within the bottom 10 percent of Massachusetts districts.

This actually understates how truly terrible the results were, because (1) averaging the whole states mixes together students from third grade through middle school, by which time the competence of the education system is much more significant, and (2) the article puts the results in terms of the size of the gap, not percentages.  Looking just at eighth grade:


On this chart, the gap in ELA is 23 percentage points, and the gap in math is 27 percentage points.  Rhode Island’s pitiful achievement of 23% of eighth grade students’ being proficient in math is less than half the achievement of Massachusetts.

Making this result even worse — and justifying the aggressive title of this post — are Education Commissioner Ken Wagner’s explanations.  Despite insisting that this is a “truth-telling moment,” he blames everybody and everything except the single most-significant factor:

  • Leaders are to blame “because reform was imposed from the top down.”
  • Bureaucracy is getting in the way.
  • “An over-intrusive city council or school committee” is to blame in some municipalities.
  • Taxpayers haven’t been funding things like “universal pre-kindergarten” and “advanced coursework.”
  • And the most stunning finger that he points at all of us: “Rhode Islanders collectively settle for lower expectations.”

Not mentioned anywhere in the article is the reason Rhode Island spends so much for education and gets so little, the reason our reforms have been touch-and-go and inconsistent, and the reason they had to be imposed from the top down.  Teacher unions control the state and dominate the districts.  That telling omission is why Wagner’s promise of results is so hollow as to be an endless empty space:

“A state takeover doesn’t work. We’re never going to get better school districts by micromanaging people at the districts and the schools. The real answer is high standards, clear assessments, investing in a high-quality curriculum, leadership. Repeat. Year after year after year. We’ve never done that as a consistent package.”

Missing is any “or else.”  The strategy appears to be quite the opposite:  Those who are most responsible for our poor results will get more.  They’ll get more opportunity, more latitude to do what they want, and more opportunity for themselves.

The problem is that Rhode Islanders can’t do otherwise than “settle for lower expectations” because people like Wagner and his political masters refuse to give us a realistic method of holding anybody accountable.  That means the uninterrupted string of students whom we’ve failed will continue to be underserved by our education system.

  • BasicCaruso

    Look no further to see the real reason for standardized testing… union busting. RICFP already knows what the problem is. Why waste all this time and money on bogus testing? Sentence first, verdict afterward!

  • Joe Smith

    Teacher unions control the state and dominate the districts. While I don’t disagree in the aggregate, then districts without unionized teachers should do better, controlling for the other factors highly correlated with test results (family income, gender, and disability).

    The only comparison then are the charter schools (since private schools don’t take RICAS/MCAS) nor do they release details on their PSAT/SAT (nor mandate near 100% participation, although I suspect they have a high PSAT and SAT test taking rate).

    Take the two least diverse charter schools (both in South County) with very low numbers of low income/minority students and compare them to similar (or even slightly more diverse schools – not districts since you can only replicate similar socio-economic factors with charters at the individual school level – from Barrington, EG, Jamestown, North Kingstown, South Kingstown., etc. What do you find – for the most part the *top* / similar demographic traditional schools even with their unionized faculty do as well or even better than those non-union charters.

    Now in fairness, do the same for the *most* diverse (meaning highest minority/low income) charters (like BVP, Achievement First) and compare them to similar schools and yes, the charters do better (much better in some cases).

    The point is you can’t just say it’s the unions – although add the unions to other factors in those districts and yes, you do make it tougher – for example teacher absenteeism and seniority bumping.

    Wagner and others are trying to lift the boats under the assumption they are all in the same pool. Things like universal pre-K won’t work – or if Wagner thinks it will, then RIDE should be intellectually rigorous and show specific cohorts of students who have gone through pre-K and full day K in the same districts and compare them – controlling for income and gender – to those who haven’t. Let’s see some real data and not the 8 year old study with some dubious methodology.

    Wagner also wants to gloss over the not PC point that boys in english do far worse than girls; you won’t make a major dent if half your population, and even worse for low income boys (a demographic I suspect is growing) are falling behind early and fast. How about charter schools and vouchers for just low income males? How about a single sex school? How about an incentive to get more male teachers in at the lower grades?

    of course, if you want to do more like Massachusetts, try to be more like them in terms of your state’s economic development. Kids are only in school for 20% of their “awake” time during a year (180 day school year at 6 hours of instructional time). Schools can’t be surrogate households and school personnel can’t be surrogate parents (as much as some would like schools to take over those roles). Look at the levels of not only low income, but “poor” as well as single parent, student mobility, and other factors correlated with economic prosperity compared to Massachusetts.

    Yes, maybe the farmers play a part, but not a surprise seeds don’t grow as well on less fertile ground, despite all the resources you throw at it.

  • rlamont

    It’s far more important to keep unions strong than to worry about bogus test scores. We need these unions to be there when these kids graduate, take menial jobs, and join themselves.