Low SAT scores put Warwick curriculum in focus

Warwick Beacon ·

Standardized test scores that measure college readiness in mathematics and English Language Arts (ELA) in Warwick have once again sparked a conversation about how student proficiency is gauged in the city and whether or not students are on the right track for their educational futures.

At the school committee meeting held last week at Warwick Veterans Middle School, Curriculum Director Wendy Amelotte presented findings from the past two years of SAT and PSAT test scores in Warwick and drew comparisons to the state average and the school districts of Barrington and Exeter/West Greenwich, both of which score significantly higher than other districts in Rhode Island.

“We are starting to have a culture of benchmarking and are really thinking not to shame anybody as to where we are as a collective district, but to look at where we are to make plans to move forward…While this is secondary data, this is representational of our district and where we are in order to move forward to support all students for learning,” Amelotte said. “It should not be used to shame any individual teacher or our district, but to help us think and plan about how to spend our funds.”

The results showed that Warwick students are not testing well, particularly in the area of mathematics. Of 622 11th-grade students assessed on the mathematics portion of the SAT last spring, nearly 75 percent of them (465 students) failed to meet or exceed expectations, meaning only 157 students assessed in Warwick last year were graded as being prepared for higher level mathematics as they prepare to graduate this year.

Broken down further, a higher percentage of students in Warwick met or exceeded expectations on the math PSAT in the 2018/19 school year than in 2017/18, but both years still lagged behind the state average in 2019. For comparison, Barrington students tested about 70 percent proficient in math, and Exeter/West Greenwich scored a little over 60 percent proficient, compared to about 28 percent in Warwick for the math portion of the PSAT.

Additionally, about half the students in Warwick are not meeting expectations according to Common Core standards in ELA, with 308 of 623 total students assessed failing to meet or exceed expectations on the SAT, compared to nearly 90 percent of students in Barrington meeting expectations on the ELA SAT and about 75 percent being proficient in Exeter/West Greenwich. Warwick scored about on par with the state on the ELA SAT, but had fewer students exceed expectations than the state average.

Comparisons to Massachusetts were also made during the presentation, which showed average test scores in Rhode Island were a little over 500 out of a possible 800 in ELA and hovered around 490 out of 800 in math. In Massachusetts, the average was around 560 for both portions. However, this may not be a fair comparison, as Amelotte pointed out, because since 2017 Rhode Island has mandated every student to take the SAT, whether they intend to pursue higher education or not. Massachusetts has no such requirement.

“We know that these are proxies with a lot of inference and shouldn’t be over-used or weaponized against anybody, but should be used as benchmarking and to understand what are we doing well, what do we need to continue to do and how we need to change our practices,” Amelotte clarified, but also added that, “This is a concern for all of us.”

AP testing also examined

As part of the testing discussion, Warwick’s past two years of advanced placement (AP) testing was examined by Director of Secondary Education Bob Littlefield.

The data showed that the total number of students taking AP tests at Toll Gate and Pilgrim High Schools increased from 2018 to 2019, from 258 total exams at Toll Gate in 2018 to 302 in 2019 – and 277 tests at Pilgrim in 2018 to 288 in 2019. The success rate increased from 48.8 percent at Toll Gate in 2018 to 52 percent in 2019, whereas the success rate dropped from 44 percent at Pilgrim in 2018 to 36.1 percent in 2019. Overall, the district administered 590 AP tests in 2019 with a success rate of 44.2 percent.

There were highlights though, such as Toll Gate English AP students, where 43 students experienced a 65 percent success rate – an average score of 3.16 (out of a maximum of 5) that exceeded both the Rhode Island and global test averages. Similarly, 18 students taking biology AP exams at Pilgrim experienced an 83.3 success rate and an average score of 3.27 that exceeded both state and global averages. Seventeen students in AP European History at Toll Gate also saw a 76.5 percent success rate, with a 3.35 average score that exceeded all averages.

The district also increased its AP offerings from 2018/19 to 2019/20, with 17 total course offerings including new classes such as psychology, computer science principles and studio art at Pilgrim and American Government and Politics at Toll Gate.

Addressing the results

Superintendent Philip Thornton has been adamant that implementing new curricula based in Common Core – so that students are learning material each day that aligns with the material they will be assessed on in standardized tests, which are also based on the Common Core – is a step in the right direction to addressing the concerning standardized test scores in Warwick.

“The work for us now in Warwick is to take an honest assessment of where we are and make plans to move forward, and that’s exactly what we are doing,” he said on Monday morning.

The district has already put in place a new curriculum for K-9 students in mathematics, which began implementation this year, and aligns with Common Core. The district has also revamped its science curriculum, moving away from what they deemed to be an antiquated model where elementary level science was only taught sporadically throughout the week to one where science is taught every day, and partners with the University of Rhode Island to administer and train teachers on the curriculum through their GEMSNET program.

Thornton said the next step is to update the math curriculum at the full high school level, which will become a topic of conversation during the next budget. After that, he wants to dig into the ELA curriculum and then “go from there.”

“Historically in Warwick, we were instructing students in the Common Core using curriculum that were not aligned to the same standards, and that was problematic, but we are now moving in the right direction,” he said. Historically, Warwick has utilized curriculum that has been assessed as being “in the red,” or not aligned with national standards, until these recent changes.

Warwick Teachers’ Union President Darlene Netcoh is cautious about using SAT data to establish benchmarks for students. She believes the test itself is problematic and intent on trying to “catch kids and trick them,” and that kids will only do particularly well on the test if they are specifically instructed on taking that particular test.

“Those tests were not designed to be proficiency tests,” Netcoh said. “They were designed to measure whether or not a student was ready to take on college level work and to predict the way a student would do in college. They’re not designed to measure proficiency.”

Even more dubious to Netcoh was using districts such as Barrington and Exeter/West Greenwich for a comparison to Warwick, which she said have vastly different socioeconomic situations than Warwick. She felt that if the district wants to improve SAT scores, having an SAT preparatory class – as has been offered in the past – would be a good place to start.

Another point of view came from Nathan Cornell, school committee treasurer, who as a recent graduate from Toll Gate High School in 2016 feels as though standardized tests aren’t a great means to assess every student.

“Some students are just bad test takers. They could be brilliant, they just don’t take tests properly, and that’s true of many students,” he said.

This point was challenged by school committee member at-large David Testa, who shared a story of two of his children who went through advanced placement (AP) testing – one of whom had a teacher who didn’t teach a specific part of the curriculum “because they didn’t believe in that part of the curriculum,” so when his daughter took the test, “they had no clue what they were looking at.” His other daughter made the effort to study on her own accord for the test and fared much better.

“So, yes, some kids are not test takers, but that is a very convenient excuse that we use here as if our drinking water is somehow different from the rest of the state,” Testa said. “I’m sorry to sound a little agitated about that, but that’s a craw for me. Our kids are not bad test takers. Overall, they’re not bad test takers – I can’t buy into that.”

In a larger picture, Warwick will now have three means to assess student proficiency going forward – the SAT/PSAT exam and the RICAS (which went to full, statewide implementation last year, and is comparable to Massachusetts’ MCAS exam for math and ELA proficiency, and the NexGen Science Assessment, which is taken by 5th, 8th and 11th grade students and assesses science proficiency.

As to the discussion regarding the value of standardized testing, Thornton was steadfast about using them as a tracker of progress and a means to assess areas of need going forward.

“I think test scores can and should be used as an indicator to track student improvement,” Thornton said. “Test scores should never be dismissed and pushed aside because we don’t like the scores that we see. Rather, they are a starting point for improvement.”

The next results of RICAS testing, which was taken last spring by students, will be available for analysis tomorrow, which should continue the conversation going forward.