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.

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