RIPEC: R.I.’s K-12 education system is in crisis

PROVIDENCE – The K-12 education system in Rhode Island is in crisis.

That’s the conclusion the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council made in its newly released 68-page report, “Improving Rhode Island’s K-12 Schools: Where Do We Go From Here?

The report, which analyzed trends in elementary and secondary schools in the state,  highlighted worrisome trends of absenteeism, low proficiency rates and disparities between demographic groups, trends which often preceded 2020 but were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Rhode Island needs to take action now to fix K-12 education for students, families and the future of our state,” said Michael DiBiase, RIPEC’s president and CEO, in a press release. “We need to approach this issue with the priority and urgency demanded by the crisis, and this report can serve as a foundation for policymakers to develop a roadmap for reform that will benefit students and educators.”

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The report found student proficiency rates in the state have dropped since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On the 2020-2021 Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System, tests which assess knowledge of English language arts and math in students in grades three through eight, only one-third of students – or 33.2% – could demonstrate proficiency in the English language arts portion of the exam and one in five students – or 20.1% – could demonstrate proficiency in math. Similarly, recent SAT data shows less than half of high school students – 48.3% –were able to demonstrate proficiency in English language arts and a little over a quarter –26.4% – in math.

The report also highlighted alarming rates of absenteeism among students. During the 2020-2021 school year, more then a quarter of all students – 27.6% – were chronically absent, a nearly 50% increase from the previous year.

Rhode Island schools also show a staggering achievement gap between white students and nonwhite students. The number of nonwhite students and limited English proficient students have increased dramatically in the state in recent years, with the number of Hispanic students nearly doubling in the past two decades and the number of LEP students growing by 43.6% from 2016 to 2021.

But gaps between graduation rate of special education students, economically disadvantaged students, and Hispanic students and their peers remains greater than in most states. On the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress, Rhode Island posted the nation’s third highest white/Hispanic proficiency gap for eighth grade reading. Similar gaps also exist along geographic lines, with outcomes varying greatly from one district to another.

“Rhode Island has large populations of nonwhite, limited English proficient, and economically disadvantaged students, compared to other New England states, and the proportion of non-white students and limited English proficient students in Rhode Island have grown markedly in recent years,” said Justine Oliva, RIPEC’s manager of research. “Rhode Island must take immediate action to support students, enhance professional development for teachers, recruit more teachers in high needs areas and increase funding for economically disadvantaged districts.”

This crisis is made worse by what is a “fragmented” system of governance of K-12 schools, the report states, where lines of responsibility and accountability are unclear.

“The result is a system where each authority is dependent on other parts of the system to carry out their responsibilities and no authority has ultimate accountability for system outcomes,” reads RIPEC’s comment.

At the end of the report, RIPEC shared a series of recommendations for policymakers to address the state of crisis. Stakeholders—policymakers, education leaders, teachers, parents, academics, and business and community leaders—should invest focus and energy into education reform “with the level of priority and urgency commensurate with the current crisis.”

The state needs to reform the school funding formula to increase funding and aid for disadvantaged communities, according to the report, and change the governance of the system to improve accountability. Another suggestion includes investing more time and resources in teacher development, while also increase efforts to recruit, retain and support new teachers.

Lastly, the report suggests that the state invests more resources in supporting LEP students and training teachers to work with them; and that it promotes “innovative practices.”

Claudia Chiappa is a PBN staff writer. You may contact her at