This week, the Providence Student Union ( published the results of an experiment they conducted. They gave fifty successful adults a math test that was based on the sample New England Common Assessment Program. Rhode Island uses the NECAP as a high-stakes test where students must achieve at least “Partially Proficient” to graduate high school.

Who can argue with making sure that students are at least “Partially Proficient” in math?

Except, apparently you don’t need to be considered partially proficient to be successful, as the results show:

The results were: Four of the 50 adults got a score that would have been “proficient with distinction,”  seven would have scored “proficient,” nine would have scored “partially proficient,” and 30 – or 60 percent – would have scored “substantially below proficient.” Students scoring in the last category are at risk of not graduating from high school. (

Now, some folks will say that the adults didn’t have the time to study for the test, but that isn’t the point. The point is that these successful adults were no longer proficient in the math skills on the test because they did not use them in their day-to-day lives. And yet, Rhode Island is going mandate “Partially Proficient” as a graduation requirement for students starting next year.


If we are to have mandatory graduation exams, let’s base them on the skills that adults need in their world. What would happen if we asked successful adults what the math they used day-to-day was? Do most people use the quadratic equation or do they need more math skills that allow them to create budgets for their business, calculate interest rates on their mortgages, understand polling data in the New York Times?

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t teach skills beyond what may show up on a graduation exam. What it means is that we have to start asking better questions about what skills are necessary for a high school diploma. And we need to start asking better questions to our students too.