PAWTUCKET, R.I. (WPRI) - Pawtucket elementary school teacher Sharon Usher says test stress has pushed some of her students over the edge.
"One [was] under the floor crying one year," Usher said. "One was afraid to come to school because they were afraid they were going to fail the test and not do well."
Cristina DiPrete, who teaches math at Tolman High School in Pawtucket, said she has also seen her kids struggle with the standardized exam. Eleventh grade test scores are a factor in whether a student will earn a diploma or not.
"You can see their frustration because they want to do well; you can see it in their face," DiPrete said. "For them to be assessed on one test at one time, it just doesn't seem right."
High School graduates for the class of 2014 will be judged on three sets of criteria: course work; performance-based demonstration of proficiency, which in most cases is a senior project; and scoring "partially proficient" on their 11th grade statewide tests.
The testing element has become controversial – sparking a handful of student protests statewide and criticism from teachers' unions as well as Providence Mayor Angel Taveras.
"The student has spent endless hours in a classroom and we're going to compare that to a one-time test? It just doesn't make sense," said DiPrete. "It's a very stressful situation to be in."
State Education Commissioner Deborah Gist said she believes scoring "partially proficient" on the test is a reachable goal for students to achieve.
"The stress is really going to come if we went ahead and gave a diploma to a student who is not ready," Gist said. "Who then goes off to do whatever their dreams are for themselves and they find doors being closed to them, that's when the stress really sets in."
Students have three opportunities to take the test by graduation day to reach partially proficient on 10th grade standards. Gist said they can also earn a diploma – dependent on all other criteria – if the student shows "meaningful" growth from one test to another.
"If that growth is statistically significant, which means it didn't happen by chance," Gist said. "In a lot of cases it's five questions or more."
Student performance is also being tied to teacher evaluations.
Educators – including classroom teachers, principals and assistant principals – are now being assessed under a new set of standards.
A teacher's "effectiveness" will be judged on several sets of criteria that include classroom observations, proposed curriculum, professional responsibilities – like how they work with colleagues and parents – as well as student growth and achievement.
Student growth and achievement is measured in two different ways: statewide testing and student learning objectives, which are decided on by school districts and can vary by classroom.
While students from grades three to eight and 11 take the exam, the tests are used for teacher evaluations in grades three to seven because they have a baseline for growth from the tests the year prior, according to education officials.
Teachers will be given a rating on a four-tier scale ranging from "highly effective" to "ineffective." If a teacher is deemed ineffective, they will receive additional help and training, according to Gist. A district can fire the teacher if they receive two consecutive years of ineffective ratings.
The state can act, too. Educators can be stripped of their teaching certificate if they receive five consecutive years of ineffective ratings.
"To be quite honest with you, when you explain that to regular people out in the community, that is beyond reasonable," Gist said. "In fact I think that's something in the future we need to be thinking about whether five years is more than it needs to be."
Both Usher and DiPrete said they agree that teachers should be evaluated, but they are concerned with the student growth and achievement portion, which includes results from statewide testing.
"It's the student learning piece that is bothering everybody," Usher said. "What were these tests created for? There's different reasons for different tests and I don't know that we're using it properly for evaluations."
Gist said she is confident educators will feel better when they get an overall picture on student growth.
"I think you have to get through the first experience and it becomes known," said Gist. "I can tell you that when I have a few minutes to chat with a teacher ... it definitely changes things because it takes the fears of the unknown [and] distills it down to what has actually been designed and what we're actually doing."
Gist said the system was made to account for students who have a "bad day" taking a test, because it looks at the "median performance of a classroom." Students are compared to other kids statewide who receive a similar score on their statewide tests.
"That is exactly why we've designed it the way we've designed it; so if you look at a student that is assessed, it's not just one student," Gist said. "What is the progress that those students make in comparison to similar students with the same performance in the past?"
Urban districts – like Pawtucket where Usher and DiPrete teach – face additional challenges like more frequent language barriers and a splintered home life that can impede student performance. Gist said the evaluation system takes that into account because it is looking at the overall growth of the classroom by comparing students who score similarly on tests statewide.
Test changes approach
Rhode Island is abandoning the current statewide testing program – The New England Common Assessment Program, or NECAP – for another one beginning in spring 2015.
Gist dismissed critics who say the state should have waited until the new test was in place to launch the evaluation system because it's not solely based on the test. She also said the new test – the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC assessment – won't be factored into the evaluation system until 2018.
"Why wait?" Gist asked. "We started this work in 2009. Why would we say that we're not going to factor in student growth and achievement which is very clearly the most important reason we do the work we do, until 2018? There is no reason to."
Both Usher and DiPrete were eager to point out they love their jobs, despite the level of anxiety they are witnessing in the classrooms.
"I wouldn't want to be any other place than at Tolman High School teaching math to my students," DiPrete said. "Unfortunately there are some teachers who get extremely frustrated and have a hard time dealing with it, but we are a good support to one another."