WESTERLY — School Committee members are looking for answers as to why students in Westerly, in general, performed poorly on the state's new standardized test, and when compared with their peers in the neighboring Chariho towns.
Assistant Superintendent of Schools Alicia Storey presented an overview of the results on Wednesday from the Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System tests. Afterward, committee members expressed concern and probed the meaning of the scores. The test is modeled after the standardized test that has been used in Massachusetts for 20 years; it is based on the same Common Core State Standards used by the Westerly district and many others around the country since 2010.
Just 41 percent of Westerly students in Grades 3-8 met expectations on the English section of the test and just 33 percent met expectations on the math section. In the Chariho Regional School District — Charlestown, Hopkinton and Richmond — 54 percent of the students met or exceeded expectations in English and 44.8 met or exceeded expectations in math.
Statewide, the average score for students meeting or exceeding expectations in English was 33.7 percent. In math the average was 27 percent.
Committee member Christine Cooke said she is concerned about what the scores say about the preparedness of Westerly High School graduates. She asked for "straight talk" answers to explain Westerly students' performance on the test, which was administered for the first time in Rhode Island last May.
"Are there kids walking across the stage that aren't prepared, that are not ready? That is not fair, we have highly compensated staff in this district. We have all the resources in place, I don't understand why Chariho is so far ahead of us," Cooke said. "They're not doing great, either, but they're doing better than us."
Storey said Massachusetts students also did poorly when the test was first administered. The test, she said, sets high standards, higher than previous standardized tests used in Rhode Island. To improve, the Westerly district must focus on curriculum and strengthening instruction, a primary focus of the district's new Accelerated Improvement Plan that was also presented to the School Committee on Wednesday, Storey said.
Additionally, Storey said district personnel will develop plans for each student and look at trends in subgroups such as special education students, students of color, and differences in performance by gender.
"Most importantly we made changes to instruction and the assessment that we use and the feedback that we give our students in class so that we can increase their performance, and we're having them practice more rigorous performance assessments," Storey said.
Committee member Mary Adams noted that the district had two years to prepare students for the new test and that it is based on standards the district has based its curriculum on for eight years. She also asked whether students who make the honor roll in the district's schools are truly prepared.
"When you take a look at our test scores ... there's not an alignment with the honor roll. We may not have students that are really performing at those levels," Adams said.
Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau, who started working in the district in July 2017, said the "disconnect" Adams described must be analyzed. He said a new accountability system that tracks both student achievement and improvement will help. He agreed that letter grade reporting is not the best means to track performance.
"Grade reporting is the least standardized thing we do," he said.
Committee President Diane Chiaradio Bowdy noted that some Westerly High School graduates have to take remedial classes when they start course work at the Community College of Rhode Island. "That's not acceptable," Bowdy said.
Committee member Christine Piezzo, who works as a classroom teacher in Connecticut, stressed the need to help teachers understand the new test and instructional approaches. "Sometimes teachers need training" and they "have to be able to feel comfortable and say, 'I need help,'" Piezzo said.