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In R.I., 'guinea pigs' protest school reform

We proudly carry the press release here by the Providence Student Union in Rhode Island. The group is dynamic, creative, and—most importantly—growing louder and speaking with a clearer voice than ever. The NECAP exams, which the state can use to deny a high school student a diploma, come with multiple tries for students and the potential for waivers from the diploma requirement, so the presentation is perhaps a little dramatic. However, the tests still take students out of class for about a week and narrow the curriculum taught by teachers in Rhode Island’s schools to beef up preparation for the tests, which have not been shown to be adequate predictors of student success in college or in the work force.

Via press release:


Providence, Rhode Island – January 29, 2014 – High school students, joined by parents, community members and legislators, held a demonstration today at the Rhode Island State House to protest what participants called “the ill-conceived experiment” of Rhode Island’s new high-stakes testing graduation requirement. To illustrate this message, students showed up dressed as guinea pigs and lab rats, complete with whiskers, animal ears and more.

Lab rats try to escape (pennstatenews/Flickr)

“The reason we are dressed like guinea pigs and lab rats is simple – that is how we are being treated,” said Jose Serrano, a member of the Providence Student Union, the youth organization holding the event. “The Department of Education hypothesized that high-stakes testing alone, without the extra resources our schools need, would solve our education problems. But this was an unproven gamble, which is becoming clearer with every exemption and waiver and backtrack that RIDE releases. This crazy experiment is playing with our futures, and we are here to say this needs to stop!”

The Rhode Island Department of Education is set to release the results of the NECAP exam seniors retook in fall 2013, revealing how many students remain in danger of being denied a diploma because of the state’s new testing graduation requirement.

As State House officials looked on, students performed a skit dramatizing RIDE’s policy, with “scientists” from RIDE injecting students with “NECAP formula” from an over-sized syringe. “What’s the worst that can happen?” one scientist character asked at the beginning of the skit. “We can always try to clean up the experiment with waivers if our hypothesis fails. And besides, they’re not our kids.” The scientists then began giving injections left and right, producing handcuffs and McDonald’s hats for students to symbolize their possible futures without a high school diploma.

Participants were joined by numerous state legislators who joined them in calling for a change to the high-stakes testing policy. Representative Gregg Amore, Democrat from East Providence, said, “We have tried the test-based reform movement for over a decade now and there is absolutely no evidence that it improves student learning or outcomes. We need to start to look at what works and begin to attack the root causes of the achievement gap that exists between well-off students and students struggling with poverty. There are far more effective tools to improve learning than high-stakes tests that punitively label students and schools.”

Representative Teresa Tanzi, Democrat of Narragansett, also spoke, asking her colleagues to take action. “I have spent time in five different schools in my community, engaging with PTOs, meeting extensively with teachers, and speaking with my Superintendent,” she said. “The themes that appeared through all of these hours of conversations have been stark. Learning has taken a back seat to test preparation, the culture of the classroom has changed dramatically, and the quality of education suffers. This is an experiment that has no winners: the stakes are too high, the payoff uncertain, and the risk too big for our students to bear. It is more clear to me now than ever, that we cannot count on the Commissioner, or the Board of Education, to address the serious concerns surrounding the High Stakes Testing graduation requirements, and that we, as legislators, must exert our authority to ensure that the future of our students is not devastated by these inconsistent and arbitrary policies.”

Students also called for alternatives to high-stakes testing to strengthen their schools. “We need proven, evidence-based reforms to improve our education,” said Sam Foer, another student member of PSU. “Instead of these experiments, we should be focusing on what our schools really need:

  • student-centered learning
  • more arts and elective classes
  • more engaging and hands-on curricula
  • smaller class sizes
  • infrastructure repairs so our buildings aren’t falling down while we try to study
  • better transportation so students can actually get to school when it’s freezing out
  • more real-world learning
  • more guidance counselors so students can actually get the support they need to apply to college
  • and on and on

“Why have we wasted so much money, time, energy and resources on this flawed high-stakes testing experiment when we could have used it so much more effectively?” he asked.

The many legislators in attendance received a strong plea for help from the whiskered assembly. Mr Foer continued, “The experiment results come out tomorrow when the NECAP scores are released. In the end, it’s the legislators here in this building that have the power to shut down this risky experiment. You have the final say: Do you support treating students like nothing more than guinea pigs in an experiment, or do you want to put an end to this gamble with our lives? We leave it up to you.”

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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