Rhode Island Admits Its Diplomas Are Meaningless


Articles on Rhode Island’s education system have become downright depressing.  Here’s Education Commissioner Ken Wagner essentially admitting that his office sees diplomas from the state’s public schools as meaningless pieces of paper designating satisfactory attendance:

Wagner, who arrived here a year ago, defended his decision to drop a standardized test from the high school graduation requirements. He said it doesn’t make sense to punish students for poor test scores when “it is just as likely that they weren’t adequately prepared” by their schools and teachers.

“When kids don’t graduate, it has lifelong consequences,” he said. 

Wagner wants to hold school districts, not students , accountable for improving student achievement….

Starting in 2021, Rhode Island will offer a “commissioner’s seal” for high school students who meet proficiency on a standardized test like the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for Colleges and Career. Instead of evaluating districts based on student test scores, the state Department of Education could judge districts based on the percentage of graduates who earn a commissioner’s seal.

Wagner’s thinking is all wrong.  Rhode Island Association of School Committees Director Tim Duffy is right that “we’re not doing students any favors by not preparing them for college or work,” but it’s more than that.  A diploma is supposed to be an achievement, not a participation trophy.  We’re supposed to hold students accountable, and moreover, they ought to be the first link in a chain of accountability:

  • If students aren’t succeeding, parents are responsible for resolving whatever problems are getting in their way.
  • If parents conclude that the school is the problem, then they hold the school accountable by seeking correction or leaving.
  • If the schools aren’t performing, then it’s the responsibility of the community that pays the bills to hold elected officials and administrators accountable.

The Dept. of Education’s role should be to facilitate this process, not to supplant it.  Otherwise, the state government is presuming to take on the role not only of every school’s administration, but also the roles of parents and of voters.  The childless commissioner’s apparent fondness for calling children who are students in pubic schools “kids” is not a good sign for the department’s perspective on those young Rhode Islanders.  (“A kid’ll eat ivy, too,” after all.)

The ideal reform would be to empower students and parents to hold districts accountable more directly, but allowing them to apply money that would otherwise to go the district to an alternative, like a private school. Until that option becomes feasible, though, the incentive for parents and students to complain has to be stronger.

The bottom line on Wagner’s ploy is that the people who are the most insulated from accountability — the unionized teachers — have a controlling hand in the state government.  The state, therefore, cannot be trusted to “judge districts” and take appropriate action.

  • Russ

    What test did Justin pass to receive his BA? Kind of meaningless, I suspect without that, right? And from a public school (gasp!). Of course we get a view into Justin’s real motivation for this kind of accountability theater…

    “The ideal reform would be to empower students and parents to hold districts accountable [sic] more directly, but allowing them to apply money that would otherwise to go the district to an alternative, like a private school.”

    • Mike678

      I can’t fathom why allowing people a choice in where to spend their hard-earned dollars on education would upset anyone not already gaining from the current system. Don’t many families use choice when they move into higher performing school districts?

      Please explain why your option is better than individual choice. Then again, you didn’t provide an option did you? Just a reflexive defense of the status-quo. So predictable….. like gravity, eh?

      • Russ

        What test do the private schools use before issuing their participation trophies, I mean diplomas?

        • Mike678

          Not the question, Russ. But then again….it’s you.

      • The Election is Rigged, Folks

        ” not already gaining from the current system”, you mean like a student, Mike?

        • Mike678

          Yes…students who graduate with a worthless diploma and a dearth of skills/knowledge required to succeed. From your trollish behavior, I guess you were one of these unfortunates.

  • Joe Smith

    Wagner is like Obama administration- use your executive agency power to short circuit the process or that these decisions are more appropriately made – at least for the majority of communities that fund locally the majority of the education costs.

    So, he has the power to determine school rankings and he’ll base them on compliance with the items he can’t get the General Assembly and local districts to support – despite the fact students won’t have much incentive to take the test, but districts will be left to figure out to incentivize those students (even if making mandatory that’s no incentive) or how to explain the state school rankings actually don’t mean squat.

    But, let’s look at your logic. One assumption in your logic – which I tend to agree is the ideal progression – is parents can’t be wrong, or at least can’t be held accountable. I may complain about crime in my area and wish to have a private security “choice” (funded by the taxpayers of course) – but what if I’m leaving my car unlocked with keys in it, house unlocked, valuable items in my yard. Right, can we “blame” the victim in this case?

    I don’t like my town water; I’ve had it tested and it meets the guidelines for safe consumption (to the extent I trust those are right and the accuracy of the testing) and use. I just don’t like the taste and also feel it’s too hard. Now, I can buy some water softener and use other options (bottled water, filters, dig a well maybe) – the question is should that be my responsibility just because my local option is meeting in general a minimum level society feels is adequate or a collective burden because I’ve determined the public provision is not up to my needs and society has to defer to my individual determination.

    It’s a simple answer when the public provision is not even up to the minimally determined standard, but what about when it is? Okay, for water you can test it and it’s pass/fail hopefully the same water is being provided to all. Now with education, what if say 60% of the students are meeting locally determined education standards, should we first, before opting to create a series of parallel systems, “test” the parents on why their student can’t achieve the standards?

    The problem with simply “parents conclude” is that it only one half of the determination. In my example, what if the homeowners “conclude” the police haven’t patrolled enough or provide sufficient crime prevention? Is that a fair conclusion or could we say ‘Hmm, maybe you should try somethings first like prioritizing some resources (time/money/effort) to safety over convenience/other things or yes, maybe you shouldn’t live in this area if that is your lifestyle?”

    I don’t think we we have an issue with that criticism – but with education, the default is it is never the fault of the student or never the parents haven’t made accommodations within the existing system; it’s hey the parents feel it’s not working so give them taxpayer funded options without any advocates for the taxpayers able to challenge that it may not (always) be the school that is at fault?

    Are you comfortable with public dollars going to this private school simply because the parents of Kindergartners feel their child can’t be “free” to be themselves, even if the public school has a great educational program?


    • Justin Katz

      The analogy to public safety doesn’t work very well. Imagine a world in which 12% of Rhode Island families voluntarily give up all police protection in order to pay for parallel private security with roughly the same coverage and 54% of Rhode Islanders say that, if they had a choice, they would rather have a private company provide security, and you’ll get a sense of how different the two are. Now add in the differences between metrics for education and public safety. What if the finding that 70% of a given town’s students are not proficient in math were instead that 70% of a town’s residents had been robbed at gunpoint in the course of the year. The repercussions of such a finding should be obvious.
      Or look to water, with 12% voluntarily giving up free water service and 54% saying they would, if they could, with 70% being made sick by drinking the water at some point during the year.
      With respect to parents, I certainly wouldn’t suggest that they can do no wrong, but that’s not the point. Rather, it simply isn’t the place of the government to begin measuring the parents to ensure that they stack up to the state’s expectations. That’s totalitarian tyranny, pure and simple.
      Get this conversation back to functional reality. Under the assumption that ensuring a baseline level of education is a public good within the scope of government, we’ve set up a system of public schools required to ensure that students within their coverage area meet baseline standards. How do we make this system work and integrate it with our Constitutional assertions about rights?
      I’m suggesting that the ideal is to subject schools to market forces while giving responsible parents some portion of the tax dollars allocated for the education of their children, with the system’s feedback loop being not just any given parent, but all parents in an area. (One parent pulling his kids isn’t going to tank a school district, but if 54% of families actually do choose private school, that’s a powerful metric about which we can’t assume parental malfeasance.)

      • Joe Smith

        And who is defining and measuring “responsible” in your suggestion of giving “responsible parents some portion of the tax dollars”?

        I’m kind of at a loss balancing that statement with “it simply isn’t the place of the government to begin measuring the parents”.

        Especially when you admit “I certainly wouldn’t suggest that they can do no wrong”.

        After all, shouldn’t “reasonable” parents also be expected to enforce school attendance, monitor homework and assessment,, promote reading during the pre-K years, show up at parent-teacher conferences, intervene early and often when red flags show up, etc? In other words, take responsibility that educating their children is first their responsibility and not something they abdicate (although I get some progressives want it where the state is primarily responsible from cradle to early adulthood) to the state and then throw their hands up when they don’t like the results.

        I’m actually with you on subject schools to market forces, but the problem is we already have excess capacity in terms of ‘schools.’ We should be getting away from the notion of school as the building block (at least at the high school level) in favor of competency achievement.

        Colleges have this partially – you can buy credits from a lot of sources generally up to half and then most schools require 50% from that school. Why not HS (and then even MS) – take the state aid money the ‘follows” the child and let parents buy credits/competencies.

        Want it at your local school – fine, the school keeps the aid. Want to hire a tutor in one subject and have the student test out (competency based credit system) – fine, school pays the tutor up to the credit percentage of state aid for your child. Want to take it at a college (which exists now but only in a very basic way) or at a private school (I would assume private schools might see a business opportunity there) or on-line? Great. If 50% of the students are taking English outside the school, then the school can eliminate English teachers – make each department “earn” their positions.

        PS -, you cite 54% of families – I’m assuming from the Friedman Poll/study that your organization assisted with producing. The methodology says almost 40% of respondents had no children (I guess technically still a family maybe..but pretty important distinction when it comes to school choice questions, no?) and 33% had children already done with the K-12 system (a family for sure, but a much different perspective if your kids had gone through 10-15 years ago as opposed to being in the system currently)..

        It would be better if the authors had provided a more detailed filtering of that question by the demographics beyond simply Providence or not Providence – and a bit more context in the question. if you ask me, with no kids in the system, would what school I would prefer if my choice (with NO context on cost) – maybe, even probably yes. If you ask me the same question but add the cost context, then I’m going to answer based on a more cost-benefit analysis.

        It’s the same point why all those bond question pass every time in Nov – $125M for URI – sure; Clean water and open space – who doesn’t want that.. if you added “and your taxes will go up by $X.”.hmm, maybe not..

        • Justin Katz

          First, I’ll say that this is how discussions ought to go. I used the term “responsible,” and now I’ll clarify in response to your reaction. In that instance, I intended “responsible” to mean “taking an interest in their children’s education.” No judgment is necessary as to whether they are making the correct decision from some particular perspective. The fact that parents have exerted the effort to make decisions about their children’s education is the criterion for “responsibility” in my intended meaning for that specific sentence.
          I get the sense we’d agree that, at the level of society-wide development, it would be an improvement if all parents took it upon themselves to make conscious decisions about whether the school that the government has assigned based on the child’s address is actually the best school for that child, by whatever metric.
          On the point of excess capacity, I’m not sure what your issue is. Excess capacity is largely a function of the near-monopoly of government schools and the labor rules under which we force those schools to operate. Assuming, as I do, that those dynamics are closely related to the fundamental problems of education in the United States and (especially) Rhode Island, it can only be to the good to make clear that excess capacity is, indeed, excess. Let a district ask the taxpayers to spend $30,000 per student and watch reforms happen quickly.
          With regard to the 54%, you are correct as to the source. Reviewing the cross-tabs, I can say that the preference for private schools was identical to one decimal point between parents with children currently in school and everybody without children in school (parents or otherwise). (I see, though, that my memory failed me, in that the percentage is actually 53.4%, not 54%.) I tried to make the distinction clear in the Center’s materials wherever appropriate, but rest assured that I would not have allowed the Center to make much of this point if there were the obvious objections that you articulate. As for what is released, this is the constant question for researchers; the cross-tabs can be cut so many ways as to blur the public’s eyes.

  • Rhett Hardwick

    quousque tandem abutere, Wagner, patientia nostra?

  • Joe Smith

    The necessity of a catchy post title aside, RI diplomas (statewide) will be meaningless when the market – colleges with non-open admissions and employers start rejecting any RI HS graduate applicants – and when the consumer starts opting in mass for

    As I’m sure you know, non-open admission colleges judge the high school, not the state, in terms of evaluating the strength of a candidate’s transcript. I haven’t heard any announcement from Ivy League schools that they’ll stop taking RI kids because (gasp) there is no standardized test requirement.

    Likewise, I suspect precious few outside of the state educational bureaucracy even care about whether such a thing as a “commissioner’s seal” exists..

    What’s really changed (I understand the whole diploma system is under revision) from before except formally dropping the standardized test given the GA’s change of heart a couple of years ago?

    Are you saying RI private school diplomas are meaningful because they have still have standardized test graduation requirements — oh wait, they don’t have that requirement either…guess their diplomas are meaningless too..

    • Mike678

      I agree with your assessment of non-open admissions and college rankings but your following comment is less well reasoned. Colleges–esp non-open admissions, evaluate so many other items….and often admit students before they actually graduate, no? The diploma signifies minimum standards–college requires so much more. So, a strawman, perhaps?

      As for your final comment, do you really think that parents would pay thousands of dollars to get a “worthless” private school diploma when they can get one ‘free’ from the public schools? That said, not all diplomas from public or other schools are awards for time served rather than actual achievement–we all understand that. This is an extremely complex issue, but resource constraints combined with the desire to increase graduation rates will do little to increase the quality of RI HS grads. But eliminating that pesky testing requirement will allow us to ignore that as we continue to graduate people with few marketable skills. But perhaps the $15 minimum wage will fix that….

      • Joe Smith

        Mike –

        Colleges evaluate a lot of things true – but also because they have different needs (diversity, athletes, full payers! etc.). While I can’t speak for the thousands of colleges, looking at research in this area shows high school GPA (I know Justin wants to hang his hat on RI catholic school SAT math scores) is the best predictor of success and the validity of that GPA of course rests on the strength of the high school(s) or sources that awarded that GPA./credit. Look at NACAC study (college admission counselor association) – http://www.nacacnet.org/research/PublicationsResources/Marketplace/Documents/TestingComission_FinalReport.pdf (page 18)

        While it’s true the acceptance has to be done prior to diploma awarding, I thought most places require submitting final transcript to verify and more importantly, the Spring transcript (except I guess early decision) basically has the full courses and 7/8ths GPA.

        (PS _ Don’t think for a minute that if USNEWS didn’t include SAT/ACT as a part of their ranking methodology more schools wouldn’t drop it as a requirement – even with that, more schools are becoming test optional because USNEWS accomdates that – just not dropping the SAT all together).

        I assume parents pay thousands of dollars because they perceive benefits (maybe academic, maybe athletic, maybe religious formation, maybe combination of those and more) worth more than their non-monetary option (or for some with scholarships a lower opportunity cost)..

        I’m also taking it as a given most private schools must satisfy those needs or they wouldn’t stay in business (endowments and benefactor parental organizations aside!). Likewise, I think many public schools provide the *opportunity* for most students with *reasonable* (to steal from Justin) parents to succeed.

        but not all..and yes, things like unions, social crusaders who see public schools as they venue to address a variety of community issues (real or not), and top heavy interference (federal/state) in local matters haven’t helped.

        As you said, this is complex- because I’m sure the folks in say Barrington (although some send their kids to private schools or homeschool) might agree they have a good public education system. Central Falls, maybe not as much, right? So, let’s fix the Central Falls without creating problems for the generally successfully districts and more burden on the taxpayers first.

        Like Obamacare – screw it up (keep your doctor, keep your plan) or raise costs for many who were fine to “fix” it for those who either didn’t want it (young people who made cost-benefit choices given their own assessment of their health) or who rightly due to various reasons were being priced out. With education, in fixing some of the ‘broken” schools, we’ve harmed the good schools.

        My point is if Justin wants to say the Commissioner (representing all of RI) means RI diplomas are meaningless when the only thing that has changed at the STATE level is eliminating the NECAP/PARCC requirement, then the same would be true for privates since they don’t have that requirement either.

        Standardized tests can be very instructive in benchmarking and pointing out curricula/teaching issues, but even NECAP officials pointed out the test was more for progress and assessment, not individual full mastery and a study in MA done by business association (so not teachers unions!) showed the MCAS was not effective as a test for college/career readiness


        the PARCC shows some promise and maybe with refinements over several iterations of test cycles, it may well rate as being an effective measure – and thus warrant consideration as a diploma requirement – of proficiency.

        I don’t think it should be abandoned as an idea, but let’s start with seeing how the test measures as a true indicator of competency. I also think it should – at least for the districts where local funding is the primary source – be left to those communities to decide.

        Right – market forces- if Tiverton adopts it and Portsmouth doesn’t, maybe families view that as an indicator of Tiverton schools versus Portsmouth.

        I agree on the $15 wage – it baffles me why proponents wouldn’t get such a ridiculous “entry” wage would actually hurt by de-emphasizing the value of at least a high school education and tilting the scales toward more capital /automation of labor..then again,

    • Justin Katz

      Whoa, whoa, whoa. Let’s get back to the statement actually made:

      “Here’s Education Commissioner Ken Wagner essentially admitting that his office sees diplomas from the state’s public schools as meaningless pieces of paper designating satisfactory attendance.”

      And here’s the relevant text from the article:

      “He said it doesn’t make sense to punish students for poor test scores when ‘it is just as likely that they weren’t adequately prepared’ by their schools and teachers.”
      In that statement, he’s acknowledging the utter failure; he’s just blaming it on the system, rather than the students. Whether or not diplomas might have some meaning regardless of standardized testing, that’s a pretty clear statement that the state Department of Education simply doesn’t care whether students’ diplomas actually represent any kind of learning whatsoever.

      • Rhett Hardwick

        If a High School Diploma has any meaning at all, some people will not be able to achieve it.

      • Russ

        The underlying assumption (and a big one) is that standardized tests are the best and only way to judge students’ academic performance. Unprepared for a single test? You’re an utter failure. What “utter” nonsense.

        We’ve yet to hear what high-stakes test was required for Justin’s undergraduate degree. I can only assume that means he believes his own BA is a meaningless participation trophy. If not, I’d be interested to know why his own coursework should be considered as more relevant but not that of HS students.

        • Mike678

          Another strawman Russ? Where did anyone in this stream state that standardized tests are “the best and only way to judge….” Anyone that makes that assumption is as uninformed as your appear to be.

          Please take a course and learn to converse without resort to your usual armada of logical fallacies.

          • Russ

            Granted it’s always confusing trying to understand what Justin actually means. He’s not saying diplomas are meaningless without the accountability theater of high-stakes testing?

          • Mike678

            Ah, playing the victim… It’s not my fault that I can’t follow an argument, it’s the other guys fault! Denial may be a way to self justify and remain a clueless troll, but it doesn’t help you grow. Try growing up.

        • Rhett Hardwick

          Is anyone complaining about bar exams, medical boards, CPA exams, police exams, firemen s exams, driver license tests, firearms license exams? I believe these are all standardized. I do wonder about an exam for driverless cars.

          • Russ

            Great idea, let’s have the state implement mandatory licensing tests for all professions. You guys would love that over here! Oh, wait a minute…

            There’s a logical fallacy here of course, and I’m not about to try to defend or critique every form of testing.

          • Rhett Hardwick

            I am afraid you have seized on the buzzword meaning of “logical fallacy” as a term of diminution. A “logical fallacy” is a flaw in the logic, not that a different result might obtain from a fallacy in the substrate of facts assumed, or from an incoherent outcome. Interestingly, your link is to a prior post by me under my real name, as opposed to my Facebook nom d’plume which was required to post here after the system was changed.

          • Russ

            Kind of boring to have to argue everything, even insignificant points. It’s flawed logic to say that because using testing as a graduation requirement is a bad idea that therefore all testing of any kind should be abandoned. Perhaps I should have called it a red herring, but it is imho flawed deductive reasoning.

            All men are mortal.
            Socrates was mortal.
            Therefore, all men are Socrates.

          • Rhett Hardwick

            Russ, please get it straight. You speak of “flawed deductive reasoning” and then illustrate it with an example of inductive reasoning.

          • Mike678

            Yes–you see the problem.