2016-11-03 / Around Town

PARCC Sets Tone for the School Year

By Betsy Sherman Walker

Numbers don’t lie. Or do they?

At the end of a nearly two-hour workshop on Monday, Oct. 24, at Pell Elementary School, where members of the Newport School Committee, committee hopefuls, and the principals of Pell, Thompson Middle School, and Rogers High School (as well as a smattering of parents) had gathered for a PARCC strategy session, the questions still seemed to outweigh the answers.

School Committee member David Hanos caught the mood. “[No other place] is like this city,” he said, after a number of comments about how Newport’s economic diversity made it one of the most misunderstood communities in the state. “We are so unique. We owe it to the kids to give them an education. There is no cookie-cutter answer.”

The focus of the workshop was a PowerPoint breakdown of the PARCC test scores for the Newport school district. Released in early September, the results raised numerous red flags. In a state of under-performers, Newport students, despite some bright spots, underperformed in nearly every grade. Math scores, with the exception of a bright pocket in 8th-grade algebra, were particularly low. Only 5 percent of Newport’s 10th-graders, for example, met or exceeded the advancement expectations for math. Newport’s scores were the lowest of the three districts on Aquidneck Island.

Brief refresher course: PARCC is an acronym for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness and College and Careers. Rhode Island currently is one of eight states participating in the evaluation program, which has evolved since it was initiated in 2010.

Data-driven, it is based on a series of computerized tests; educators look at the percentages of children in each grade who test at five levels of expectations – exceed, meet, approach, partially meet, and do not meet. Students in grades four, eight, and 11 also took the New England Common Assessment Program for Science, or NECAPS, tests.

It bears mention that while being outshone by neighboring Massachusetts (one of the eight PARCC states), which showed “meet or exceed” levels of 60 percentage points, twice Newport’s average, two other states – Colorado and Illinois – had completely comparable scores.

The test is considered of value because it evaluates, at every grade level, a student’s preparedness to move on to the next grade. More importantly, it provides a picture, in black and white, of not only how students are doing, but how well the district’s schools are doing.

Yet, as Hanos pointed out at the workshop, there are plenty of gray areas.

At Pell, for example, one often-quoted PARCC statistic was that only 23 percent of low-income third-graders met the reading proficiency expectations, versus 65 percent of their higher-income classmates – children sharing the same classrooms, but not the same economic advantages.

Counterpoint to the PowerPoint, there were also examples of the human efforts involved. There were discussions and explanations from Superintendent Colleen Jermain and school principals Traci Westman, Jaime Crowley and Jeffrey Goss, about the myriad measures and initiatives, implemented at every turn and at every grade level, to give Newport’s students the best possible learning opportunities.

The list includes the national Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, reading intervention blocks, after school programs, positive reinforcement, and ownership. Rogers has two trained reading specialists.

Citing Pell as “the epitome of how we can be successful,” Jermain reiterated the theme of the One Newport district strategic plan: “The more we work with partner agencies [in supporting schoolchildren], the more our partners throughout Newport will be able to support us.”

“Our mission,” she said, “is to educate as high as we can and support the best we can.”

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