Sanzi: Rhode Island Gets Serious About School Standards, Adopts Massachusetts’s Tests

It’s common for states to emulate Massachusetts in educating their students. At least one state is now officially getting closer to making that aspiration a reality: Rhode Island has decided to discontinue using the national Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers student assessments and switch to the Massachusetts exam — the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System — for grades three through eight.
The state will call the new exam RICAS, for Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System, but it will be identical to what Massachusetts students use. The PSAT and SAT will now also be mandatory for Rhode Island high schoolers.
If there were ever a state to partner with to improve student achievement, Massachusetts is it. It has worked seriously and thoughtfully to improve its standards and testing for nearly two decades.
It has never blinked.
By contrast, Rhode Island blinked and then blinked again, shifting its standards and assessments as education commissioners came and went. Bold efforts for greater accountability around teaching and learning were met with loud resistance from unions, teachers, and parents: plans were modified, watered down, and even scrapped. Massachusetts has had a high school exit exam since 1997. Rhode Island will still not have one.
“Massachusetts stayed the course for 20 years,” Rhode Island Education Commissioner Ken Wagner said earlier this month. “This positions us for that kind of stability.”
We see other states choosing to blink as well, with electeds running scared from the political heat of Common Core, meaningful teacher evaluation, annual testing, and even school choice. In some cases, they are leaving hard-fought reforms in tatters, turning the clock back on decisions and policies that directly benefit kids and honor parents by providing them important information about how their children are doing. A new mayor, a new governor, or a new education commissioner can literally mean the sudden death of years of tireless work.
Robert Pondiscio of the Fordham Institute — where I am a visiting fellow — wrote recently about aborted reform efforts in New York:
“When Betty Rosa was named the new chancellor of the Board of Regents last year, she struck a tone that could not be more different than her predecessor, calling for the board to ‘move away from so-called reform.’ If she was a parent and not the head of the Board of Regents, Rosa said, she herself would opt out of state tests.”
In Tennessee, where there’s been significant educational innovation in recent years, political disputes have also undermined reforms, as a commentator noted:
“Before the [Achievement School District] can be really evaluated, we want to eliminate it?
“Before we can determine the effectiveness of higher learning standards, we change them.
“Before we can allow teachers to get comfortable with a tougher, higher-stakes evaluation system, we force them to deal with something new.
“I wonder what we would learn about our children, those that teach them, and the schools they attend if we just held course for a couple of years?”
Rhode Island is trying the slow-and-steady approach this time around, working to get frequently disagreeing stakeholders on board in the hope that change will finally be lasting and stable. Partnering with Massachusetts certainly makes sense on that front since it has an unmatched track record for sustaining hard-fought changes that raise student expectations and increase student achievement. Over time, Rhode Island could match its high-performing neighbor to the north and become a national leader and trendsetter in creating interstate partnerships to better serve not only students but also teachers who will now have the resource of thousands of teachers just over the state line who are rowing in the same direction.
Early signs are encouraging in terms of stakeholder support. Despite conflicting priorities, union leaders, parent group leaders, the president of the Board of Education, and even students have expressed support and optimism about the move. Right or wrong, PARCC has become increasingly unpopular, and notably so in Rhode Island. And with neither Massachusetts nor Connecticut using it, it became far less useful as a measure when comparing performance.
“The MCAS isn’t a better test,” Wagner said. “It’s about the partnership with Massachusetts. We always compare ourselves to Massachusetts. Now we can actually do it.”
Credit goes to Governor Gina Raimondo and Wagner for finally taking a first and big step toward being more like Massachusetts when it comes to public education.
Teachers will have more colleagues with whom to collaborate, apples-to-apples comparisons will be possible, and a sense of long-term stability will finally become part of the Rhode Island psyche.
It will take more than a change in a testing regimen to get to where Massachusetts is. But Lil Rhody has made a good start and may become a model for other states in one more way: looking to replicate what high-achieving states are already doing rather than trying to reinvent the wheel.

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