The Rhode Island Department of Education’s Draft Plan for Implementing the ESSA (the federal Every Student Succeeds Act)—Spin and More Spin

On August 21, 2017 there was a quite productive and thought-provoking panel discussion on the topic of the state of public education here in RI at a meeting of the Progressive Democrats of RI. The panelists were knowledgeable and experienced and made many excellent points. They were asked to consider the RI Department of Education’s draft plan for implementing the ESSA, and to explain something that they liked and something that they disliked about it.

I would like to expand on my previous blog post, “Utopian Rhetoric vs. Dystopian Reality in the Draft RI ESSA Plan” found here and explain my objections to the plan on two fronts—accountability via test scores on state standardized tests, and the shift to “personalized” learning. It should be noted that the ESSA plan doubles down on the previously promulgated RI Strategic Plan for Public Education 2015 – 2020, which was heavily weighted toward “personalized” learning.

In the first place, the RI ESSA plan is virtually unreadable, and contains a mind-boggling array of colorful graphs and charts, which boil down to how accountability will be defined for schools and districts. As I said in my previous post, “In substance and format, this plan for education does not resonate with the human spirit. It’s mainly about measurement, accountability, and ranking and sorting of students, teachers, and schools. It occurred to me that persistence in reading this type of mind-numbing informational text is what the Common Core ELA Standards expect. … Have we come so far down a technocratic path that educators no longer communicate their shared vision for educating our nation’s children with prose at a human scale, reflecting human aspirations, human capacities, and human needs?”

Now to the emphasis on standardized testing for accountability purposes. Most Rhode Islanders will remember the fanfare that accompanied RIDE’s shift to the PARCC end-of-year testing from the previous state assessment called the NECAP.  This new test was deemed essential to match the more rigorous standards set out for English Language Arts and Mathematics via the Common Core State Standards. These standards and the accompanying testing were deemed necessary to ensure that all Rhode Island students graduate from high school College and Career Ready and with 21st century skills. I have taken issue with this stance before and won’t repeat my objections here. Suffice it to say that there was considerable pushback against the time-consuming nature of the PARCC, the pressure for online administration, the time and resources wasted in preparing for and administering the tests, as well as the nature of the questions themselves. The test results were discouraging, not surprisingly. So now RIDE has determined that after only a few years of the PARCC, Rhode Island schools will again switch to a different set of assessments.

RIDE announced in April, 2017:

“We’re always looking for ways to improve teaching and learning, and that includes our state assessments. This shift from PARCC to the RICAS [RI Comprehensive Assessment System, supposedly aligned with the MCAS—Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System] and PSAT/SAT [for high school students] is responsive to feedback we have received from educators, students, and families. Massachusetts has a long history as a leader in education, and adopting the RICAS ensures long-term sustainability with a reliable neighboring state partner. The PSAT and SAT are well-respected and accepted by U.S. colleges and universities.” See here.

As I explained in my previous blog post, this is where the rhetoric diverges from the reality: What RIDE leaves out of this enthusiastic shift to the RICAS is that the MCAS 2.0 (new version of the MCAS) is no longer the highly respected MCAS that was developed back in 1993 by actual experts and with stake-holder input. (See any of the multitude of writings by Dr. Sandra Stotsky, an ELA expert who was key to the original MA standards and assessments, was a member of the validation committee for the Common Core State Standards in ELA, and refused to sign off on them because of their deficiencies.) The new, improved MCAS is now aligned with the Common Core State Standards, as are the PSAT and SAT. David Coleman, one of the architects of the Common Core State Standards for ELA, became the CEO of the College Board in 2012. The College Board produces the PSAT/SAT as well as AP (Advanced Placement) exams and the Accuplacer. Here are two articles that detail the mess that David Coleman and his infatuation with the CCSS have made of the SAT:


and here

On August 16, 2017 RIDE held a webinar for the August meeting of the ESSA Committee of Practitioners. The webinar was supposed to focus on reviewing the feedback from stakeholders on the draft ESSA plan. RIDE had provided a spreadsheet of the feedback along with RIDE’s responses on its website. (See here.)

I had registered for the webinar but through some fluke of my computer I was not able to get into it. I did, however, email a response to RIDE with a question/concern. So far (August 23, 2017) I haven’t gotten a reply:

Comment from the spreadsheet:

the star system of rating schools [1 to 5 stars] still heavily weights tests as the most important factor and it was clear from meetings and public comment that while it is “an” important factor, it’s not the importance the system places on it.

response from RIDE:

 The reliability and validity of assessment data make it appropriate for use in accountability. Additional data (e.g., SurveyWorks) can still be used to learn more about schools and to drive change. 

I do not understand RIDE’s confidence in the reliability and validity of assessment data when the state is shifting from the PARCC to the MCAS 2.0 (RICAS) and the PSAT/SAT. Even though all are now aligned with the Common Core, the new tests are not equivalent to those students have been taking for the past few years. I am not aware of reliability and validity studies that were done for the PARCC, and I doubt that any have been done for the RICAS. In addition, as you may know, the College Board’s revamping of the SAT to align with the Common Core has come under intense criticism. Please provide the sources for your response. Thank you


And now to some of my objections to the enthusiasm for “personalized” learning found in the Strategic Plan and RI’s ESSA plan (encouraged by the federal law itself). On page 9 of the RI ESSA State Plan Companion Guide from July, 2017 (See here. ) is a description of “reimagined schools.” These schools will emphasize “student-centered” learning, also referred to as “personalized” learning, competency based education, and proficiency based education. (Reasonable sounding terms, but actually code words for online learning where students’ digital lessons are adapted to their responses to mainly multiple choice questions via algorithm) The text proclaims:

“Emerging research by the RAND Corporation finds, ‘… overall positive and large student achievement gains from personalized learning exposure.” (emphasis added)

[This is from a 2015 study funded by the RAND Corporation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.]

RIDE may have missed this conclusion from the same RAND report:

“The achievement findings are largely positive and promising.

They indicate that compared to peers, students in schools

using personalized learning practices were making greater

progress over the course of two school years and that

those students who started out behind were catching up

to perform at or above national averages. We conducted a

set of rigorous sensitivity analyses and concluded that they

generally support these results. However, it is important to

use caution in interpreting these results as causal effects of

personalized learning. Although the analyses used the best

estimation strategies possible given the nature of the data

and limits to implementing a strong experimental design, it

was not possible to separate personalized learning effects

from other potential school effects.” (emphasis added)

report found here

Keep in mind that the July, 2017 RIDE ESSA plan is touting a RAND study from 2015. Here’s what EdWeek said on July 11, 2017:

“There’s new evidence to suggest that customizing instruction for every student can generate modest gains in math and reading scores, according to a report released today by the RAND Corp. (emphasis added)

“Despite the promising signs, though, the researchers behind the most comprehensive ongoing study to date of personalized learning describe their latest findings as a “cautionary tale” about a trend whose popularity—and backing from philanthropists, venture capitalists, and the ed-tech industry—far outpaces its evidence base.” (emphasis added)

See here.

and this from EdWeek on July 18, 2017:

“Customizing instruction for every student can generate modest gains in math and reading scores, but it can create major implementation challenges for schools, concludes a report released last week by the Rand Corp. See report here. (emphasis added)

from article here

I visited a Providence middle school this past spring that prides itself on being a blended learning school (i.e. providing one-to-one hand-held devices for each student) and wrote my impressions here. (I am not a fan.)

post found here

As with all things human, the question we need to ask is: Cui bono? (or, Follow the money.) I refer all those impacted by this runaway train for edtech solutions to human problems (and that is everyone) to read the blogs of two impeccable researchers who discuss the downside of digital learning: Emily Kennedy Talmage, a fourth grade teacher from Maine, a state that has also plunged headlong into “personalized” learning and has experienced its pitfalls—her blog is “Save Maine Schools;” and Alison Hawver McDowell, a parent from Philadelphia and opponent of Competency Based Education, community partnerships, and the newest financial travesty: Social Impact Bonds, aka Pay for Success—her blog is “Wrench in the Gears.” She has written an entire blog post devoted to what’s been happening in Rhode Island. See here.

For an inkling of the privacy concerns with students using digital platforms such as Summit Basecamp, see this article by Leonie Haimson, a passionate champion of student data privacy from New York:
post found here

For an introduction to the hazards of the wifi radiation coming from the ubiquitous use of hand-held wireless devices in classrooms, see this page from the Environmental Health Trust’s website, describing how advocates for the health and safety of students in schools in the state of MD have been pressing for attention to this issue and taking steps to protect children.

See here.

Why is it that these serious concerns do not appear to be on the radar screen of anyone making policy decisions for school children in Rhode Island?


P.S. sorry for the formatting issues–I haven’t figured out how to transfer my writing from Microsoft Word to wordpress without glitches.

Please respond with questions and/or comments!




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