Last week, the debate over using the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) as a requirement for high school graduation came to Warwick City Hall during a youth group-sponsored forum with experts in education and a representative from the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE).
The public was invited to attend the question-and-answer-style meeting Wednesday night, which was sponsored by two East Greenwich-based youth programs, Academy Foundation and Eastern State Youth to Youth.
Panelists for the forum included Nancy Cloud, coordinating council member of Rhode Island Teachers of English Language Learners; Robert Mathis, director of special education for St. Mary’s Home for Children; Joanne Quinn, executive director of the Autism Project; Rick Richards, a former School Improvement and Accountability specialist with RIDE; Ronald Wolk, founding editor of Education Week newspaper; and Andrea Castaneda, chief of Accelerating School Performance for RIDE.
As expected by many, Castaneda received the majority of the questions, and hostility, from the audience.
While addressing the crowd, Castaneda said that she was told she would be in the “hot seat” for the night, but she didn’t see it that way.
“I view this as our absolute responsibility,” said Castaneda.
After a brief introduction and statement by each panel member, the floor was opened up for questions from the audience. The overall theme of the evening’s comments, from both the audience and panel, was that students with learning disabilities, autism, those in the learning gap, or English language learners are at a disadvantage when it comes to the NECAP test.
“To test children in an assessment they don’t understand is to make a mockery of the word assessment,” said Cloud, who equated one’s inability to understand English to their inability to show proficiency on the NECAP. She said this essentially says if one does not know English, they cannot graduate high school.
Quinn pointed out that autism is a language disorder, and children with this disorder do not understand language the same way others do and often will not answer questions correctly because they do not understand.
“We need a better assessment,” said Quinn. “We want it to be a fair playing field. Fair is not equal; fair is where people get what they need.”
She said it is the question, not the information, and time needs to be taken to make changes to the assessment to account for this.
Both Wolk and Richards took the stance that since 4,100 high school juniors did not show proficiency and run the risk of not graduating, something must be wrong with the system.
“How many of you think that our children, America’s children, are so stupid and so lazy they can’t learn? How many of you think that? Nobody thinks that? OK, how many of you believe that the majority of our teachers are so lazy and so incompetent that they can’t teach? Nobody believes that,” said Wolk. “How do you account for the fact that more than two-thirds of our students can’t score proficiency on these tests and are deemed that they didn’t learn what they were supposed to learn? How do we account for that? … So maybe there’s something wrong with the system.”
Richards echoed a similar sentiment as he advocated for the urban student. He pointed out a statistic that says half of all inmates at the ACI do not have a high school diploma or GED. “What does that say about a policy that is making it harder to graduate?” asked Richards.
While Castaneda admitted she agreed with many of the points brought up by her fellow panel members, the problem is happening now and there is no time to waste.
“We have to have a solution now,” said Castaneda. “Letting another 150,000 kids pass through the system is unacceptable.”
She said that students of color, those with learning disabilities and English language learners are not being held to the same high expectations as other students and that needs to change. There are also still many problems with the average student.
Castaneda made mention of a RIDE-sponsored summer program where a number of students, including a few from Warwick, were able to take a math course at CCRI to help with NECAP preparations; all students in the summer program were rising seniors that had received a 1 on the test. Following the program’s completion, Castaneda and others met with the professors for a discussion and she was shocked to learn that some of the students didn’t know basic long division, multiplication or addition.
“That completely breaks my heart,” she said. “That problem is not going away, even if NECAP goes away.”
The majority of the questions asked by parents in the audience regarded their child, most of whom had autism or another learning disability. Some questioned how to help their child as they struggle through work and classes that are being taught to the test; others questioned how their children will be able to go to college or get a job without a high school diploma because they cannot pass the test.
Castaneda encouraged parents to continue to support their children and focus on collective advocacy, which she called “parental demand for services.”
Mathis said the real blame should be placed on politicians.
“We are victimized by politicians who came up with No Child Left Behind,” he said. “No Child Left Behind gives us very little wiggle room.”
Although she attempted to address every question, many audience members commented that Castaneda was patronizing and even rude.
“You have strong opinions about this and nothing we say is going to change your opinion,” said Castaneda in her final remarks to the crowd. “Testing itself is something we have in our lives. Students knowing how to encounter things that are difficult is part of life.”
“What really made my hairs on my neck stand up, was when [Castaneda] said we are going to challenge special needs students,” said Ellen Polo of Warwick. “They are challenged to the nth degree. They are challenged more so every day than other students.”
Polo is the mother of a third grader with autism at Robertson Elementary. She explained that her daughter was able to be in a mainstream classroom the majority of the time in previous years, but because she has been preparing for NECAPs for the past month, she is now in her special education classroom 90 percent of the time.
“Her daughter was the success story,” said Amber Mansfield, the parent of an autistic second grader, also at Robertson.
Mansfield explained that there is a huge spectrum when it comes to the abilities of autistic children, and she agreed with what Quinn had to say during the forum.
“If you ask him the way he understands, he will answer you,” said Mansfield of her son.
Both mothers worry that their children will face even more hardship as they grow and face standardized testing graduation requirements. The thought that her child could get a certificate of completion and not a high school diploma is not acceptable to Polo.
“My daughter is brilliant,” said Polo. “I’m saving for her college education now.”
Polo pointed out that the NECAP should test her daughter on what she learned in second grade, but she has spent the entire first month of third grade reviewing.
“Assessments are fine if they are on what you’re learning,” she said.
Both moms also felt that Castaneda gave the sense that nothing was going to change.
“There needs to be contingencies; it can’t be black and white,” said Polo.
Alexia Lekos is a junior at East Greenwich High School and a member of Youth-to-Youth. She observed the forum and believes the parents are right on target.
“They seem to have it spot-on. They see their kids struggling,” said Lekos.
She added that sitting through the forum gave her a lot of information about things she did not know before. While she feels she will still be able to graduate from high school with the help of alternate assessments or a waiver program, she is still unclear on the diploma versus certificate debate.
“I don’t understand how that affects your ability to get into college or get a job,” said Lekos.
Lekos also addressed the content on the NECAP, saying she was confused by the structure of the questions and how she was supposed to answer some of them.
“I’m afraid I won’t be able to graduate because of how they structured the question,” she said.
Lekos admitted that she is a musician and does not have the best time with math. It is the math NECAP that is weighing heavily on her mind.
“I’m trying so hard, but I don’t see improvement,” she said.
Overall, Bob Houghtaling, moderator of the forum and founder of Youth-to-Youth, said he was pleased with the outcome of the forum.
“I think it was great. It keeps the conversation going,” said Houghtaling, adding that there is a great deal of passion, concern and fear when it comes to NECAP. “It also gives people the chance to let off steam.”
Houghtaling concluded by comparing the debate to coaching a fantasy football team versus a real one.
“Coaching a fantasy football team is all about statistics. Coaching real football is about more than just statistics,” he said. “We are creating fantasy team-like education, basing it on statistics.”
He said it is important to have forums like this, and hopes to host more in the next month. He hopes to have one in Providence and one in Newport.