September 3, 2008

Proposed Diploma Rules Jar Parents

By Jennifer D Jordan

The Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education is expected to act soon on a proposal giving 11th-grade test results more weight among criteria for graduation.

A group of parents worried that proposed changes to high school regulations would prevent their children from graduating have asked state education officials to reconsider the changes, which could be approved as early as next week.

The proposal drawing the most criticism would make the state tests in math and English administered to 11th graders count for one third of a student's graduation requirements. Currently, the test counts for just 10 percent. The state Department of Education says that increasing the importance of the tests would force school districts to work harder to support struggling students and guarantee that the districts align classes with more rigorous state standards.

If approved, the changes would roll out over the next few years, becoming mandatory in 2012. By that time, test scores would also appear on a student's official transcript.

"We want no child getting a diploma who cannot read, write or do math," said David V. Abbott, deputy education commissioner. "But at the same time, we as a state will not find it acceptable to push kids out. ... It's not just 'Here's the test score, kid, pass it or you are out.' "

But some parents are worried that students will be pushed out, and add to the state's 30-percent dropout rate.

The parents group -- the Statewide School Improvement Team Collaborative, which began at Exeter-West Greenwich High School -- has gathered 1,300 signatures over the past several months requesting that the Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education hold off on voting on the changes when it meets Sept. 3.

The parents group plans an information session tomorrow night. The meeting is open to all parents.

"These changes are taking place and parents have no idea what is coming down the pike for students," said Teri Maia-Cicero, an organizer of the meeting. "My biggest concern is that these new regulations could keep a kid from graduating who should be able to get a diploma and go to college or get a job."

The Regents, who have discussed the changes for three years and held at least two public hearings on the matter, will hold a workshop Wednesday night. It is likely they will vote to approve the changes at next week's meeting, said Patrick A. Guida, vice chairman of the Regents.

"My objective is to get this formally approved at the Sept. 3 meeting," Guida said, "because it's really important for the districts to know what the expectations are, so they can begin to work on them."

Under the proposal, students would not need to earn a "proficient" score on the tests in order to graduate. Proficient on the math exam, for example, is a B-plus, a standard the Regents decided was too high. Just 22 percent of juniors scored proficient or better last year on the math test.

However, students would have to score in the partially proficient range and have decent grades.

Students who score in the lowest range -- substantially below proficient -- are at risk of not graduating. Last fall, 51 percent of juniors fell into this category in math.

Those students would have to show a basic grasp of high school- level math and English through other means, such as retaking the state tests senior year, submitting other test scores, such as the SAT, or passing some other assessment determined by the district.

The Regents said an appeals process would be established for students at risk of not graduating because they failed the state tests.

THE PARENTS say they are concerned that students who test poorly or have learning disabilities would be at risk for not graduating -- even if they are passing their classes.

Four years of coursework and demonstrating proficiency through senior projects and portfolios make up the other two-thirds of the state's diploma requirements.

New high schools tests were introduced just last year, and parents say that more time is needed to ensure the tests are a fair and accurate measure of what students should know. The tests, like those for grades 3 through 8, were developed with New Hampshire and Vermont.

Parents say the tests, called the New England Common Assessment Program, were never designed to determine whether a student was prepared to graduate.

"We are not opposed to testing and we totally support the goals of the Regents -- to have high-performing school systems and students," said Mary Sommer, a member of the parents group who has two sons at Exeter-West Greenwich High School. "But the tests were designed to be a check on the system, not as a punitive measure against students, particularly against students currently in the pipeline. Why is this on the backs of the kids?"

Parents say they are also worried that school districts will be unduly burdened by providing extra support to students that the new regulations would require -- such as retesting, tutoring or even adding a fifth year of high school for students to reach proficiency.

"For remediation, where is this money coming from? What is the Regents' plan for that?" Sommer asked. "I feel like we are raising legitimate questions as parents and taxpayers and we are entitled to that information."

In addition, just half of the state's high schools have aligned classes to the state standards the tests are based on. Students attending high schools that have not yet done so face a distinct disadvantage. For example, to pass the state math test, students must have taken algebra and geometry in the first two years of high school. But not every freshman and sophomore is being offered those classes.

"We just don't want kids to get hurt in the process, or fall through the cracks, through no fault of their own," Sommer said.

Education officials say many of the parents' concerns are valid, but they say the issues will be addressed over the next couple of years as high schools continue to adjust to the new diploma system. By 2012, all high schools must have received approval from the state education commissioner in order to grant Regents diplomas, which will replace current high school diplomas.

"Parents can walk away from this knowing the education their kid is getting is better," said Abbott, the deputy education commissioner. "If we don't think a district has everything in place, we are not going to have the kids pay the price."

The parents' meeting is scheduled for 5 p.m. tomorrow at Exeter- West Greenwich High School, 930 Noosneck Hill Rd., West Greenwich. For more information, e-mail [email protected] or call (401) 392- 3516.

On Wednesday, the Board of Regents will hold a public workshop at 4 p.m. at 255 Westminster St., Providence, Room 501. The Regents' Sept. 3 meeting is set for 4 p.m. at the same location. [email protected] / (401) 277-7254

Originally published by Jennifer D Jordan, Journal Staff Writer.

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