A new study has ranked Westerly and Chariho high schools the first- and second-most improved high schools in Rhode Island.
In the first statewide report card released on April 11 by the Rhode Island Campaign for Achievement Now, elementary and middle schools in the Westerly and Chariho districts also scored well in all categories.
The rankings of 300 public schools are based on the 2011 New England Common Assessment (NECAP) scores. Each year, students throughout the state in grades three, eight and 11 are tested for their proficiency in math, reading and writing. There is a separate science test for grades four, eight and 11.
From 2010 to 2011, Westerly High School’s math scores went from 42 percent proficiency to 46 percent. Reading scores rose by 11 percent, from 80 percent to 91 percent.
Chariho’s math scores went from 45 percent to 53 percent. Reading scores in the district rose from 86 percent to 93 percent, an increase of 7 percentage points.
Hope Valley Elementary School was ranked first in average student performance with 98 percent proficiency. Ashaway Elementary was ninth among the top 10 most improved schools, with a 13-point increase in overall proficiency.
Middle schools in the two districts also did well. Chariho Middle School was first in the “low income performance” category with 88.5 percent of students at or above proficiency. Westerly Middle School was ninth with 67 percent proficiency.
Established in 2010, the Campaign for Achievement Now is a nonprofit group, largely funded by private charitable foundations, that advocates for good public schools for all Rhode Island children, regardless of income or ethnicity.
“We set goals every year around reforming state policy,” said Maryellen Butke, executive director. “We build a cadre of advocates — parents, community members, taxpayers ... to have their voices be heard for reforming our education system.”
Chariho School Superintendent Barry Ricci said he was pleased with how high the district’s schools had placed, but he cautioned that the evaluation criteria, namely the NECAP scores, were not sufficiently comprehensive to provide an accurate picture of how each school actually performs.
“I think it’s really dangerous to take one measure and say ‘That’s the measure,’” Ricci said. “There are so many other things that go into being a good school and a good district. ... There are also intangibles, like, are the kids respectful to each other? Are the adults respectful to the kids? Are the kids respectful to the adults? Do kids persist in their work? ... There’s a lot of things to think about in terms of what does a good school look like.”
Westerly School Superintendent Dr. Roy Seitsinger Jr. said he was pleased at how his district’s schools, particularly Westerly High School, had been ranked, but like Ricci, he took the results with a grain of salt.
“You always look at these things and say, ‘This is great, is it good information? How was the data constructed and how can we use it for our purposes to inform ourselves about how to get better?’ You always want to make sure you’re doing more each day to improve the learning environment,” he said.
In a written statement, Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist said that the state is currently looking at new ways to evaluate school performance, but that in the meantime, it is risky to rank schools using one set of data.
“Under the revised system, we will evaluate all schools based on a number of factors, including proficiency and distinction levels, progress toward closing gaps between student groups, the rate of progress toward targets, growth or improvement over time, and graduation rates (for high schools). Although the information in the RI-CAN report cards highlights the strengths and the shortcomings of many of our schools, the R.I. Department of Education does not rank schools or provide letter grades based solely on the results of a single state assessment,” she said.
Butke said she agreed with Gist’s statement.
“It just happens to be the only measure that we have,” she said. “What we wanted to do is start a conversation, and we wanted to highlight some of the schools that are doing some extraordinary things, and to run over to those schools and say ‘Barry Ricci, Roy Seitsinger, what are you doing, and how do we replicate the great things that are happening?’”
She said the Campaign for Achievement Now will spent the coming months working on what Butke calls a “policy agenda.”
This would entail “doing a lot of work at the Statehouse on a teacher quality bill in particular, which is how we keep the best teachers in the classroom,” she said.
The organization will also visit some of the top schools on its report card to learn what makes them high-performing and share those best practices with educators throughout the state.