Dennis Mullen's voice is raspy.
It's no wonder. He's been doing a lot of talking since the Warwick School Department learned that 253 of the 710 juniors who took the NECAP tests in October are at risk of not receiving a diploma when the rest of their class graduates in 2014.
Mullen isn't giving up on the 253 students. He believes all of them have a good chance of graduating, although meeting the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) standard is not going to be easy.
"I want all our kids to be successful," Mullen said in an interview yesterday. His comments come a day following a rally outside Pilgrim High School where a coalition of groups opposed to high stakes testing called on parents to contact their legislators. The coalition favors passage of a bill introduced by Warwick's Rep. Eileen Naughton to eliminate the use of high stakes tests to determine whether a student is eligible to graduate. The bill was slated to be heard by the House Health, Education and Welfare Committee yesterday.
The math test is where students across the state fell short on the NECAP test. An estimated 4,100 juniors statewide are at risk of not receiving a diploma according to the coalition.
Rhode Island's poor math scores are not breaking news. The math scores have traditionally been low, but this time students not at least partially proficient in any level of the tests are at jeopardy of not graduating.
Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist had scheduled to implement the standard - one of three that Warwick students need to meet - for the Class of 2011. She backed down from the requirement, setting the standard for the Class of 2014. The other two standards Warwick students must meet (this can vary by district) are successful completion of a graduation by proficiency project and successful completion of 22 credits of study.
The Warwick picture is symptomatic of what is happening in districts across the state. In Cranston, 43 percent of the juniors are not partially proficient in one or more areas of the test. In East Greenwich, the number is 15 percent and in Johnston it is 47 percent.
In order to be considered partially proficient, a student must receive a "2," or a score of 1,134 to 1,139 on the test. Students scoring 1,100 to 1,133 are listed as a "1," or not proficient.
Mullen estimates 12 to 15 students at each of the city's three high schools score one to two points from the 1,134 threshold and fall into the "1" category. The difference is one wrong answer; one answer that could make the difference from graduating or not.
Mullen said the department is geared up to do everything possible to ensure when students take the NECAPs again in October (they will have a third shot in January of next year) that they get a "2."
Mullen hasn't taken the math NECAP, but he has tried his hand at sample tests.
"It's rigorous; it's extremely rigorous," he said.
That said, the department expects to mail letters to the parents and guardians of the 253 students this week, or early next week, touting actions the department will take and inviting them to a meeting. Among those measures planned is a mock NECAP test to assess whether a student "is close enough" to the 1,134 point threshold to continue taking elective courses. If the student is in need of additional instruction, whether in math or another section of the NECAP, they will be placed in an intermediate class.
Of the 253, Mullen said, "we will provide all of them with every possible support we can."
Part of that assistance will come from STAR Enterprise, a universal screening and assessment tool that the School Committee acquired from Renaissance Learning in January. The STAR system is being used in assessing the capabilities of all students. Students identified as falling short in math would be placed in math labs where they would work with highly qualified teachers, Mullen said.
An early warning system is also being established to identify potentially at risk students early on.
While there are between 36 and 45 students within a couple of points of being partially proficient, the biggest gap, said Mullen, are students with IEPs, or individual education plans. He estimated this group at 120 to 125 students. These are students who need additional academic supports. Traditionally, many of these students have been capable of completing course work and even excelling in particular subject areas but have had problems in other subjects.
There is yet another group, who also have IEPs, that have severe cognitive limitations. While these students have been mainstreamed into the school - the largest program is at Pilgrim - they realistically can't be expected as partially proficient under the standard set for other students. Mullen notes that RIDE offers an alternate assessment, but "they don't get a diploma."
There is another alternative assessment for students that repeatedly take the NECAP but fall short. If they can show significant growth in alternative tests such as ACUPLACER, COMPASS, SAT, ACT and PSAT, they will be permitted to graduate.
Mullen said the department would prepare progress plans for all 253 students.
"I know why the commissioner is doing what she is doing," said Mullen. Yet, he feels "there is an opportunity to make it less aggressive than it is."
"What concerns me," he said, "is that some of the kids don't test well and they still go on to be successful in life."
Another of Mullen's concerns is that the educational process has been more and more focused on a handful of skills, which is closing the door on electives and giving students a sampling of career fields and opportunities.
Mullen is hesitant of being critical of what is apparently a high stakes test, although Gist takes issues with that definition.
"We don't know what the consequences would be," he said.
At stake is state funding and school certification.