KIDS COUNT: Racial disparities remain in R.I. education

PROVIDENCE – Racial and ethnic disparities still exist in various aspects in education across all grades in Rhode Island, according to Rhode Island KIDS COUNT’s new issue brief on the matter, released Thursday.

In the 16-page brief, KIDS COUNT highlights data from national studies and the R.I. Department of Education, noting that students of color and students from low-income families have unequal education opportunities compared with school communities that are predominantly white and of higher incomes. Among the reasons for the disparities, the brief notes, are lower proficiency rates in math and English, lower performances on the SAT exam, lower graduation rates and having more educators who are teaching outside of their area of expertise.

KIDS COUNT officials, local nonprofit leaders and R.I. Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green will formally speak about the brief and its recommendations on Thursday at 3:30 p.m. at United Way of Rhode Island Inc.

The full report can be read here.

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KIDS COUNT Executive Director Paige Clausius-Parks told Providence Business News Thursday the disparities outlined in the brief remain persistent. While efforts have been made recently by the General Assembly to close those gaps, including passing legislation, more work is still needed, Clausius-Parks said.

“We still have a lot more to go and a lot more to do,” Clausius-Parks said. “We need to provide this data to show where students of color are struggling. Then, we need to bring educators, policymakers and families of color together to understand the barriers and create solutions around it.”

According to the brief, chronic absentee rates across Rhode Island during the 2020-21 academic year were higher with those identified as Native American (43%), Hispanic (42%) and Black (36%) than with Asian and white students, whose absentee rates were 19% and 18%, respectively. Multilingual learners (44%), low-income students (43%) and students with disabilities (34%) also had higher absentee rates than the 28% rate for all students across the state, the brief states. Also, absentee rates were the highest in communities hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the brief.

Regarding the Rhode Island Common Assessment System tests, 37% of third graders in 2022 met expectations in English-language arts and just 35% in math. In the ELA assessment, according to the brief, just 22% of Black students met expectations, while 19% of Hispanic students and 12% of Native American students met expectations.

In the third grade math assessment, only 23% of Black students, 18% of Hispanic students and 14% of Native American students met expectations. By comparison, the brief notes 48% and 46% of white students met expectations in ELA and math, respectively.

There is also a difference in high school graduation rates. The brief notes that in 2021, there was an 88% graduation rate for both Asian and white students. However, it drops to 82% for Black students, 77% for Hispanic students and 76% for Native Americans.

“Early warning and intervention systems use early predictors of dropping out, such as poor attendance, behavior problems, and course failure in math and reading, to identify students who are off-track, so academic supports can be put in place to help students get ‘on track’ for graduation,” the brief states.

A large gap in services being provided to students with special needs also exists, per the brief. In June 2021, 52% of students receiving special education were white, compared with just 29% Hispanic, 10% Black, 2% Asian and 1% Native American.

Regarding hiring teachers of color, it is problematic in the Ocean State. Rhode Island, according to the brief, is one of only 15 states that requires test-based admission to enter into teacher preparatory programs. And, only 43% pass their elementary license exams on the first attempt.

In addition, Rhode Island, per the brief, is one of four states that does not offer financial incentives such as bonuses, loan forgiveness and scholarships to help recruit teachers of color, teachers willing to work in underserved schools and teachers in shortage areas. Plus, Rhode Island is one of 10 states that does not offer at least one financial program to recruit teachers to underserved areas.

Clausius-Parks says she hopes state lawmakers can create a funding stream to support hiring and retaining educators. She said there had been bills introduced previously that would have created different types of financial incentives for educators of color but they did not pass out of committee.

“We have the research and data. We know these things make a difference,” Clausius-Parks said. “It is really time to start investing these dollars to make it happen.”

The brief also notes that the state in 2020 received an “F” grade from the Education Law Center in Newark, N.J., for its funding distribution. Rhode Island, per the brief, was one of 17 states determined to have a “regressive” school funding system, offering less money to high-poverty districts than to low-poverty districts.

The brief offers 19 recommendations to help the state close the disparity gaps. Among them are offering financial incentives to attract and retain educators of color, permanently remove test-based admission requirements for teacher-prep programs and use COVID-19 relief funds to address the pandemic’s impact on students of color.

James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at You may also follow him on Twitter at @James_Bessette.