PORTSMOUTH — Although local students as a whole achieved small gains in their assessment scores compared to last year, the results were still far lower than what members of the School Committee wanted to see.
“If we’re to look at these scores and draw conclusions from that, overall they’re pretty dismal,” committee member Allen Shers said at Tuesday night’s meeting, after hearing Assistant Superintendent Thomas Kenworthy present the results of the latest — and final — round of local PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College) testing.
The controversial PARCC assessment will be replaced next year by a new testing system in Rhode Island. Students in grades 3 to 8 will be given the Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System (RICAS), while high school students will be administered the SAT or PSAT test that’s commonly used in college admissions.
According to results released by the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE), 52.7 percent of all Portsmouth students who were administered the PARCC assessment in the spring met or exceeded expectations in English language arts (ELA) and literacy, compared to 50 percent last year.
Local students saw a sharper improvement in math, with 48.8 percent of all students meeting or exceeding expectations, compared to 42.7 percent last year.
Portsmouth students exceeded the statewide averages in both ELA and math, which were 39 percent and 31 percent, respectively. (The complete RIDE report, including a breakdown of scores by school, can be viewed here.)
Most committee members, however, didn’t exactly take that as encouraging news. They said Portsmouth’s scores still lag behind other comparable schools, and the district hasn’t made many strides since PARCC was first implemented in 2015.
“I’m very disappointed and upset, because for the last three years we’ve been very patient,” said Vice Chairwoman Emily Copeland. “It’s not just that Portsmouth is doing poorly, we’re doing poorly in comparison to Rhode Island districts. This is really not acceptable.”
Just like Portsmouth, the other schools had to deal with the switch to PARCC three years ago, she noted.
“I think we have to figure out what’s gone wrong. Why have other districts really figured out what to do in these changing test requirements and we haven’t?” Ms. Copeland said. “If it was all districts in Rhode Island looking like that, we could say it’s the test. But it’s not.”
Committee member Frederick Faerber III said students can’t study for the PARCC test, so the assessment is a reflection of what students have learned in their normal course of studies.
“So really, it’s pretty bad. What is it that we’re not doing right?” said Mr. Faerber.
Low math scores are one of the key reasons trade companies are having difficulty finding candidates, he said.
“We have to find a way to improve these math scores. They’re abysmal,” said Mr. Faerber. PARCC may be going away, he noted, but it’s in compliance with Common Core, a minimal standard. “We’re not even meeting the minimum.”
“If I had any one answer, I would be offering it,” said Mr. Kenworthy said, adding, “Are we teaching to the assessment? That’s the question.”
PHS losing ground
Larry Fitzmorris, president of Portsmouth Concerned Citizens, which analyzed PARCC scores at PHS compared to other major public high schools around the state, said the school has clearly lost ground on the other districts over the past three years.
Using an average of both ELA and math scores, Portsmouth ranked fourth among 31 “major high schools” in 2015, but dropped to ninth place in 2016 and to 12th place this year, Mr. Fitzmorris said.
“That is a precipitous decline,” he said. “When we grade the high schools … we’re in serious trouble.”
Superintendent of Schools Ana Riley, while acknowledging that “we’re not happy with our PARCC scores,” cautioned against ranking high schools by using test scores of ninth-graders only.
“We know there’s an issue with our math scores, however our overall ranking as a high school … is the SAT data,” she said, noting that there’s much more “student engagement” in those assessments at the high school than with PARCC, despite today’s high participation rates in the latter test at PHS compared to in 2015.
Committee member Andrew Kelly also expressed disappointment with the latest PARCC scores. “We’re under 60 percent in both categories for proficiency, which is not where we’d like to be,” he said.
However, he dismissed comparisons that are commonly made between the local district and schools in East Greenwich and Barrington. Many military families come and go from Portsmouth, he noted, which makes for a less-stable student population.
“We have a significant transient population in this town,” Mr. Kelly said. “We may have those students for only a month to three years.”