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300 Pawtucket high school juniors not on track to graduate

February 14, 2013

Pawtucket Schools Supt. Deborah Cylke

PAWTUCKET — Over 300 of the city's 11th graders are in big trouble. These are the students enrolled at the city's three high schools who face the prospect of not being able to graduate in June, 2014 due to their low performance on last October's New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) tests.
Nevertheless school officials say they are optimistic about several plans to reach these at-risk juniors and help them to improve their NECAP scores on next year's tests.
The class of 2014 is the first to have to their NECAP scores affect their ability to gain a high school diploma. Beginning with this graduating class, the Rhode Island Department of Education is mandating that students must score at least a “2” or “partially proficient” on the statewide NECAP tests. To the dismay of Pawtucket school officials, 80 students scored a “1” or “significantly below proficient” in reading and a whopping 306 students performed similarly in math, according to the just-released 2012 fall NECAP results.
At Shea, 21 percent of 221 total students tested scored “significantly below proficient” in reading. At Tolman, 15 percent of 234 students were at this level. At the Jacqueline M. Walsh School for the Performing and Visual Arts (JMW), none of the 35 students tested for reading were in this category.
Math scores at the city’s public high schools are even worse. At Shea, 68 percent of the 221 students tested scored “significantly below proficient” in math and at Tolman, 61 percent of 233 students' scores were in the “1” range. At JMW, 13 out of 36 students, or 36 percent, faired poorly in their math skills, scoring at “significantly below proficient.”
Some students, 22 at Tolman and 45 at Shea, are in double trouble, as their scores were “significantly below proficient” in both reading and math. Overall, school officials estimate that roughly 306 students need immediate intervention in reading, math or both subjects in order to graduate from high school next year.
At Tuesday's School Committee meeting, Schools Supt. Deborah Cylke and Secondary School Performance Officer Patricia DeCenzo discussed the NECAP scores and the intervention plans that will be put in place this spring. Each at-risk student will get a “progress plan” for remedial help and support. Each student's family is notified about their status.
The at-risk students will have additional chances to pass the test, retaking the NECAP in October of 2013 and/or retaking a modified version of the NECAP in the winter of their senior year, 2014. If a student demonstrates growth in the October NECAP or meets the required level of achievement on the winter test, that would put them on course to graduate.
Among the interventions that will start in the spring semester, all students who scored “significantly below proficient” in reading will be scheduled into a remedial class called READ 180. All students who are similarly ranked in math will be placed in a math intervention class.
The math intervention class will include a computer web-based program called “Think Through Math.” The computer program will allow for students to work on math skills and exercises at home or in advisory class. A math intervention teacher will monitor student progress and provide additional support.
In response to concerns raised by several School Committee members about the computerized math tutor, Cylke called the program “adaptive” technology, which works with each student's individual level and weaknesses. “This supports the teacher. This does not replace the teacher,” she said. There will also be after-school support available for at-risk students.
Cylke said that going forward the schools will do a better job of identifying and supporting struggling 10th grade students who will take the NECAP in October. Families of 10th grade students who scored “significantly below proficiency” in the 8th and 9th grades will be required to attend summer courses in math and reading.
Decenzo said that the students and their families are being encouraged to “stay positive.” She said the students can still graduate with their class if they can show growth in the next 18 months. “The amount of growth needed is not out of reach for our students as it is outlined in the RIDE NECAP growth charts,” Decenzo stated. She said that in most cases, demonstrating growth only means a student answering another five or six questions correctly on the NECAP exam.
Cylke said that about 30 percent of the district’s students speak English is a second language or have a learning disability, but that 70 percent should be able to meet the proficiency requirements. “Minimally, we need to get at a 70 percent grade level,” she said.
School Committeewoman Nicole Nordquist questioned whether the NECAP test was an accurate measure of the students' skills and if it was overly difficult. However, Cylke noted that the NECAP was developed by a team of educators from all of the New England states, and that if it was not an accurate measure, “We would have heard about it from people in Connecticut or New Hampshire.” She added that Rhode Island is last out of the six New England states in NECAP scores.
“Where are we losing these kids?” asked School Committeeman Raymond Spooner. Cylke said that the problem is not a high school issue but a “systems” issues, citing curriculum alignment and parental involvement. She also said she traced back the test scores for when the current at-risk 11th graders were in third grade and found only 37 percent were proficient back then. “So this is something we should have seen coming. We need to strategically address this problem,” she said.
Michael Davenport, the school district's math/science coordinator for grades K-12, said that in recent testing, the school district's students reach their peak of proficiency in fifth grade. He also cited the curriculum as a problem, and said steps have now been taken to better align what is being taught with the state standards. These changes should start to make a difference in test scores going forward, he said.
In other matters, the School Committee unanimously approved a “Backpacks to Fight Hunger” program recommended by the Wellness Subcommittee. Using donations from individuals and local businesses, the program will provide snacks and non-perishable food items to students identified as lacking adequate food during weekends and school vacations.
The committee also voted 4 to 2 to adopt a resolution asking that RIDE consider changing its mandates so that teachers are not evaluated by student performance.
Prior to the meeting, representatives from Bristol County Savings Bank in Pawtucket presented the School District with a check for $20,000 from its charitable trust program to pay for band instruments and suuplies for the music program.

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