State Education Commissioner Deborah Gist.
By Kim Kalunian, WPRO News
“Unemployable.” It was the word State Education Commissioner Deborah Gist used on WPRO’s John DePetro show used when talking about Rhode Island’s high school graduates -- though Gist attributed the word to the Rhode Island Manufacturers Association (RIMA).
Gist said Thursday morning that when she met with members of RIMA Wednesday, they said the skill sets of Rhode Island high school grads were so poor that they couldn’t place them into jobs that normally don’t require a college education.
But Bill McCourt, Executive Director of the Rhode Island Manufacturers Association, said “unemployable is a strong word.”
“Challenging definitely,” McCourt told WPRO Thursday.
McCourt said finding high school graduates jobs in manufacturing is becoming increasingly difficult for two reasons: the lack of training high schoolers receive before graduation, and the increasing demand for innovation and technology skills in the manufacturing sector.
“The skill level necessary and pay grades have both gone up,” he said.
McCourt said when he met with the Commissioner he was trying to advocate for more advanced career and technical training, an area that had been reserved only for remedial students in the past. He said more students should consider going into specialized programs, especially if they are naturally proficient in those areas.
He also said that he supports Gist’s efforts to raise the standards; allowing students to graduate without proficiency, he said, isn’t good for anyone.
“Unfortunately it makes the employers look at it and say, ‘What [good] is a high school diploma?’” he said.
McCourt said it’s imperative that students not only have the diploma, but the underlying skills to back it up.
“The days of high school dropout getting a job in manufacturing have dwindled tremendously,” he said.
Gist said she hopes at some point to put “real expectations” into place for high school students – the kind where graduation isn’t determined by proficiency or improvement on 10th grade standards, but actual excellence at grade level. She said now, “if anything these expectations are too low.”
But Gist said she isn’t just erroneously cracking down on students; she’s heard the stories of what happens to poorly prepared pupils once they’re out of the public school system.
“Going ahead and giving them a diploma when they’re not ready…does not help them and it doesn’t…help our state as a whole,” she said, saying that’s what Rhode Island has been doing for “many, many, many years.”
Gist told DePetro that graduates struggle getting into the military because there’s an exam that goes along with it.
She also said 75% students have to pay for remedial courses at CCRI – a figure that’s not as bombastic as it sounds when examined.
According to CCRI, in the fall of 2012, CCRI had 17,884 students. Of those, approximately 3,800 were students who enrolled directly out of high school.
Students who attend the Community College of Rhode Island without a break between twelfth grade and their college career are required to take an ACCUPLACER test to determine their ability to perform at a college level in reading and math. CCRI says 70-75 percent of those students, roughly 2,850, placed in one or more developmental courses. Of those 2,850 students, approximately 40 to 50 percent needed remedial reading, while 60 to 65 percent needed remedial math.
CCRI says the figures vary from semester to semester, but over the past six or so years, roughly the same percentage of students fresh-out-of-high-school have needed remedial training.
“Many of these students need only one course and are then ready to resume their college credit courses while some need two or three courses,” explained Richard Coren, communications director for CCRI in an email. “These rates are, by far, the biggest indicators of the necessary improvements needed at the high school and middle school levels for students before they reach our doors."
Gist told DePetro that the negative trends surrounding Rhode Island high school grads is “incredibly discouraging.”