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Rhode Island Adults Embrace Flawed Student Logic

• Adam Peshek

Anxious teenagers have expressed the same frustrations about math tests for generations: “I’m never going to use this after I graduate,” “I’m not a math person,” and “I’m not a good test taker.” So it wasn’t surprising when a group of students in Rhode Island mounted a campaign against high-stakes math tests. The surprise came when prominent adults in the state joined students in their shortsighted push for lower expectations.

Recently, Rhode Island became the twenty-sixth state to have an “exit-exam” – a policy requiring students to show a minimal level of proficiency on reading and math before graduating. Starting with Rhode Island’s class of 2014, students will not be eligible for graduation if they score at the lowest achievement level on the state’s high school math test, the NECAP, unless they demonstrate significant improvement during one of their two chances to retake the test in their senior year. Since the NECAP only covers the concepts students are expected to master in the 10th grade, this requirement essentially means that Rhode Island students will be given three chances to prove that they are somewhere below 10th grade-level in math.

Despite the low bar, a group of high school students, dubbed the Providence Student Union, have mounted a campaign against the policy and shrewdly convinced dozens of state legislators, city officials, professors and other adults to take the test.

The results are in – and 60 percent of the adults flunked.

Sadly, instead of using their failure as an opportunity to commit to improving math skills, these Rhode Island officials opted to tell students what they’ve wanted to hear for generations: tests are not fair and they’re probably not going to use math anyway.

After flunking the test, State Representative Teresa Tanzi admitted she might have passed if she took the time to prepare for it, but does not see how “cramming for this test and earning a better score will in any way make me a better person or help me be more effective in my career.” State Senator Gayle Goldin agreed, saying she “would much rather hire students who have the creativity and strategic thinking” to organize this type of protest than students who perform well on the test.

You read that right – state leaders are effectively telling students that preparing for and mastering math concepts is less important than the ability to organize a protest against 10th grade math tests. There’s no question that there are many important characteristics in life – like creativity, perseverance, and work ethic. But that does not mean that math should be tossed out the window because a few adults don’t use it in their jobs. Especially since the workforce of the future will look nothing like it does today, with Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) industries expected to grow at twice the rate of non-STEM industries in the next decade.

Some adults, like Providence City Councilman Sam Zurier, think these expectations are too high. In a resolution to scrap the graduation requirement, Zurier calls the test “unfair” because it does not give some children “a reasonable chance to succeed, and imposes devastating consequences on many children who, through no fault of their own, are not ready to achieve the required test scores.”

Requiring students to demonstrate a minimal level of mastery over 10th grade math does not seem to be “unfair” in a world where a diploma represents more than four years of attendance. The idea of lowering expectations because some seventeen year old students cannot achieve a minimal level of mastery is an example of what President George W. Bush famously called the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Fortunately, there are still some adults in the state who believe in high expectations for students. Education Commissioner Deborah Gist defends the requirement, saying “for too many years, we have passed these students along, and too many graduates have found doors closed to them when they seek employment or further education.” 

She’s right. Last year, ACT found only 56 percent of Rhode Island students met college-readiness benchmarks for math in 2010. For those who say that college isn’t for everyone, a study by the Education Trust found that one-quarter of Rhode Island students fail to meet even the military’s basic entrance exam. The numbers are even worse for minority students, where a whopping thirty-seven percent of African-American and forty-percent of Hispanic students in the state failed the test. These numbers are shocking, especially considering that 75 percent of eligible young people don’t qualify to even take the test because they are physically unfit, have a criminal record or didn’t graduate high school, those numbers alone should be alarming.

The Student Union’s leader says they’re against “the idea that a single test score can measure the entirety of a person’s value, worth, and future success.” It’s obvious that no test can measure everything about a student’s chance at success in life. But there is content that can be mastered and there are questions with right and wrong answers. To stop holding students accountable for math because we don’t have an adequate test for their creativity or work ethic makes little sense, especially given the results that years of low expectations have produced.

High schoolers are entering a workforce desperate for mathematicians, not organizers, and life after high school is full of high-stakes tests, projects, and assignments. The question is whether we want to prepare students for the real world – one full of consequences, deadlines, and expectations – or the world of perpetual adolescence where the best method of facing your challenges is forming a union to complain.

About the author

Adam Peshek @AdamPeshek

Adam Peshek is Managing Director of Opportunity Policy at ExcelinEd, where he provides strategic support to state leaders interested in developing, adopting, and implementing policies that increase educational options for children. He has provided expert testimony in more than a dozen state legislatures and is a frequent commentator on ESAs, school choice, and education policy across the country. He is also the is the co-editor of the first published volume on ESAs, Education Savings Accounts: The New Frontier in School Choice. Adam currently resides in Atlanta, Georgia and is a Senior Fellow with the Beacon Center of Tennessee.