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New High School Diploma Requirements Likely to Create a “Caste System,” Stigmatize At-Risk Students

Posted: January 24, 2011|Category: Students' Rights

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On the eve of a final public hearing on proposed new high school graduation requirements for students in Rhode Island, a diverse group of organizations has highlighted startling statistics documenting the devastating impact that the requirements would have on at-risk students in the state. The groups – the RI ACLU, RI Disability Law Center, the Autism Project of RI, RI Legal Services, Urban League of RI, Progreso Latino, Parent Support Network of RI, the Center for Hispanic Policy and Advocacy, Young Voices and the George Wiley Center – claim that the new policy would essentially institutionalize a caste system in Rhode Island’s public schools.

Beginning with the Class of 2012, students’ scores on a high-stakes standardized test, known as NECAP, will help determine whether they qualify for a diploma, and if they do, what kind of diploma they will receive. The groups participating in today’s news conference said that, extrapolating from recently-released test scores for the Class of 2011, close to 90% or more of special education, limited English proficient, economically disadvantaged, Latino and African-American students would be at risk of either receiving no diploma at all or one designating them only as “partially proficient,” effectively announcing their lack of proficiency to all potential employers and colleges.

The proposed Board of Regents’ regulations, which have been the subject of significant controversy, create a multi-tier diploma system, based on students’ 11th grade performance on the NECAP test. (Separately, students must also obtain passing grades in their coursework and a performance-based assessment.) The specifics of how many tiers there will be are left to the Board of Regents to determine later. However, those students who perform “substantially below proficient” on the NECAP test would either not receive a diploma at all or would have to retake the  state assessment and show “growth” in order to qualify for the lowest-tier diploma.  But how much and what kind of growth they would have to show to earn a diploma is left completely undefined in the regulations, leaving students and parents in the dark.

Because many more students did poorly on math than on language arts assessments, the math scores are the ones that tend to decide which students, and how many, are at risk of either not graduating or at best receiving the lowest tier diploma.  The following percentage of students in at-risk student subgroups would either receive only the lowest tier of diploma or would be at risk of receiving no diploma (depending on how generously “growth” on NECAP retakes is determined):

  • Black or African American: 93% [71% “substantially below proficient”]
  • Hispanic or Latino: 90% [70% “substantially below proficient”]
  • Current Limited English Proficient: 99% [94% “substantially below proficient”]
  • Special Education (IEP): 96% [86% “substantially below proficient”]
  • Economically Disadvantaged: 88% [65% “substantially below proficient”]

In short, almost all students who are poor, minority, have disabilities or are English language learners would, at best, fall into the lowest tier of diploma, if they get one at all, making the new diploma system a state-sanctioned tool for discrimination and stigma.

Although the regulations require school districts to provide appropriate support services to students, a RI Department of Education report from only two months ago showed that of ten mandated support criteria, there was not one category where all school districts were in full compliance. In three of the categories, 10 or fewer school districts were deemed to have fully implemented the support criteria. Despite this lack of preparation by the districts themselves, the new regulations will, once adopted, apply to students who have already taken their 11th grade NECAP test that will form the determination as to whether they will qualify for a diploma.

The groups urged that the current regulations be kept in place for another year, and that the consumers of education – the youth, their parents, and their advocates—be placed at the center of a design process for a system that focuses on what works for students to get them to high academic achievement and high rates of graduation. 

Opposition to the regulations has been virtually unanimous at the two public hearings on the proposal that the Board of Regents has thus far held. The third and final hearing is scheduled tomorrow in Providence.

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