Extracurricular activism

By PHILIP EIL  |  August 28, 2013

 PSU-Kids_0830_top.jpg
WORKING TOGETHER FOR CHANGE McKay, Shea, and Rivera.

There was a moment, he says, during the PSU’s recent trip to the State House when, during a mock hearing in front of Rhode Island state legislators, one of the students looked to him, mid-testimony, for guidance. Mezera says that he fluttered his hand, as if to almost signal something. Then he stopped himself.

“All I was thinking about for the next two or three days,” he says, “was how he looked at me for an answer, and I went like this” — he replicates the fluttering motion with his hand — “and kind of gave him an answer. And I’m really uncomfortable with myself doing that.”

Test as battleground

Monique Taylor is 18 years old. She lives in South Providence and attends Central High School, where she is a senior. Her parents do not work (they’re both disabled), and her family is on government assistance, she says. Monique loves to sing; she’s a fan of Alicia Keys and she sings in the school choir. She wants to be a nurse or an ultrasound technician when she grows up. “Nobody in my family went to college,” she says. “So I want to make my mom and my dad very proud. They look up to me.”

Taylor remembers the day Aaron Regunberg came into her American Lit to tell students about the Providence Student Union. “The snacks, I admit, that’s like the first reason I wanted to join,” she says with a laugh. But, after joining, the organization has become much more than that for her. Thanks to PSU, she says, her fear of public speaking is “vanishing.” She remembers one day when she was feeling depressed and Regunberg encouraged her to come along to the State House, where PSU students would be speaking at a Senate education committee hearing related to standardized testing.

“I went and I read my speech in front of all of these important people and. . . I was really nervous, but it made me feel really proud because they kept asking me questions and then I answered them like a true adult, mature, human being,” she says. “They just smiled at me. . . and everybody kept clapping, and it just made me feel. . . better.”

Taylor completed her senior project a year early as a junior, she says, and she expects she’ll be able to finish her course work at Central without any major problems. This leaves one more hurdle to her graduation: the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP). When the took the test last year, she scored a “3,” or “proficient” on the reading and writing section, but she only scored a “1,” or “substantially below proficient,” on the math section, she says.

This makes Taylor is one of the estimated 4000 students across Rhode Island at risk of not graduating in 2014 because of the NECAP. While students have been taking the test since elementary school as a standardized performance measure, 2014 marks the first year in Rhode Island that the test will be used as a graduation requirement. If a student does not receive a “2” (“partially proficient”) on the NECAP, or if they do not “show progress toward proficiency” on subsequent attempts at the test, that student will not meet the graduation requirement.

The regulation, voted in by the Board of Regents in 2008 (which has since been replaced by the Board of Education), was originally scheduled to take effect in 2012, but pushed back to 2014. In May, numerous organizations — including the Ministers Alliance of Rhode Island, the Providence Chapter of the NAACP, the Rhode Island ACLU, and the Urban League of Rhode Island — signed a letter arguing that the regulation placed 40 percent of the state’s of 2014 in danger of not graduating. The “implementation of this mandate is poor public policy and will unfairly harm many students who deserve a diploma,” it read. Aaron Regunberg’s name also appeared on that letter, on behalf of the Providence Student Union.

Indeed, above all other issues they’ve fought for, it is the NECAP that the most PSU students feel most deeply about. It was the NECAP that they were protesting at their “zombie march.” It was a mock NECAP that they administered to local lawyers, lawmakers, professors, and other adults at the Knight Memorial Library in the spring. And it was the NECAP that PSU member Cauldierre McKay, a senior at Classical, talked about on the steps of the state house during his “State of the Student” address.

“How does the NECAP give us the comfortable, safe buildings and supplies we need?” he said. “Does the NECAP help students overcome learning disabilities, or provide the emotional and social support we need, or decrease high school dropout rates? It doesn’t — in fact, it makes things worse, sucking all the creativity and joy we have left out of school and replacing it with test prep, test prep, and more test prep.”

And yet Rhode Island’s top administrators are not swayed. RIDE spokespeople point to the number of alternate tests that students can take as accepted substitutes if they don’t show improvement on the NECAP. They point to math support classes that are freely available during the summer, online, and after schools and on weekends during the school year that can help students boost their scores.

“The question is, do the kids get the skills at CCRI where they pay for it? Or do they get the skills in middle school or high school where they should be getting it?” state Board of Education chair Eva-Marie Mancuso told the Phoenix at Sunday’s retreat. The ACLU may say that Rhode Island’s current policies place minorities at a disadvantage, she said, but she’s been hearing a different message from the experts the board consults. “We have to increase the bar for minorities because there is such a skills gap, not graduate them because we feel bad,” she said.

“I’m not going to change my mind because a bunch of kids showed up with signs, either,” she added.

Across the room, Commissioner Gist was similarly steadfast. The implementation of the NECAP as a graduation requirement for the of 2014 “means that we are on a path to having expectations for our students that will mean they’re better prepared when they leave our high schools,” she said. The conversation we ought to be having is when we can raise the bar even higher, she said, “Because having students be partially proficient on 9th- and 10th-grade standards is not going to give them the level of skills that they need to be successful whether they go directly into the workforce or into college.”

In a previous phone conversation with the Phoenix, she told us that the current NECAP graduation requirements are “not a high bar.”

An agreement, unsigned

Two days after the PSU marched into RIDE’s offices in Providence in August, toting their $500,000 “PAY TO THE ORDER OF Each student denied a diploma due solely to the NECAP graduation requirement,” check for the commissioner to sign, Commissioner Gist sat down for a meeting with the group. Instead of signing their check, she presented them with a signed copy of a “Memorandum of Agreement” listing five points about education and necessary skills for post-high school life about which she and the PSU could hopefully agree. The memo made no mention of standardized tests. The PSU didn’t immediately sign the document and, for now, the portion of the memo under “Members of the Providence Student Union (undersigned)” remains blank.

“Shortly after school starts and we have time to gather, we will sit down and discuss amongst ourselves about how to sign or offer up revisions,” Cauldierre McKay tells us.

Meanwhile, Monique Taylor, who says she knows five students who have dropped out of school because of the NECAP, says changing the test’s connection to graduating in Rhode Island is high on her agenda of PSU involvement this year. But that doesn’t mean she’s going to stop studying for it.

“I’m not a quitter,” she says. “So. . . I’m going to try to take this NECAP one last time.”

To learn more about graduation requirements for Rhode Island High School students, go to ride.ri.gov. To learn more about the Providence Student Union, go to providencestudentunion.orgfacebook.com/ProvidenceStudentUnion, or @pvdstudentunion on Twitter.

Philip Eil can be reached at peil@phx.com. Follow him on Twitter @phileil.

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