This actually happened: A key legislator listened to his constituents and changed his mind about an important piece of legislation, which changed the fate of the bill.

It just happened in Rhode Island, where House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello first opposed a three-year moratorium on using a standardized test as a requirement for high school graduation, but then learned about what was at stake for students and decided to support it. Instead of tabling legislation calling for a moratorium, which had already been approved by the state Senate, he allowed it to come up for a vote on the last day of the legislative session and it passed 69-3. It would be surprising if Gov. Lincoln Chaffee did not sign the legislation into law.

If he does, it means that a single high-stakes standardized test cannot hold back a student from graduating from high school if all other requirements are satisfied — at least for three more years. That was about to happen to a special-needs student who missed the cutoff on the New England Comprehensive Assessment Program, or NECAP, by two points.  Molly Coffey, an 18-year-old with a form of Down syndrome,  had passed all of her classes,  completed her senior project and played in three sports and participated in the Special Olympics.

Terry Coffey and her daughter, Molly Coffey, 18. (Photo by Elaine Arts)

The testing requirement for graduation was supposed to kick in this year though there was a great deal of controversy over using the NECAP, which was not designed to measure individual student performance, and, in fact, no other New England state had used it as a requirement for graduation. Some students were granted waivers from taking the test but others weren’t and there was concern about how unequal the awarding of them were across the state. Rhode Island students protested, saying that no single test was a valid measure of their achievement.

After the Senate passed a bill calling for a three-moratorium on using a high-stakes test as a graduation requirement, supporters in the House expected to vote on identical legislation. But Mattiello, who last year had supported a bid to reconsider the testing requirement, decided to oppose a moratorium, which was supported by the business community and state Education Commissioner Deborah Gist.

Constituents from different walks of life — including the Providence Students Union, which had staged protests over the last two years against the requirement during the year — pushed for Mattiello to allow the bill to come to the floor for a vote on Friday, the last day of the legislative session. According to this story by WPRI, Mattiello read about Molly Coffey in this Providence Journal story and began to change his mind.

Molly Coffey will get her high school diploma if Chaffee signs the law.

The Providence Students Union celebrated the unexpected House vote that came after numerous protests, including a “zombie” march and an exercise in which high-profile adults took a test created from questions off the NECAP and didn’t do very well. In a statement union leader Sam Foer said:

“We are so excited by this huge step, and grateful to everyone – students, parents, teachers, legislators, and more – who worked so hard to make this possible. We urge Governor Chafee to side with Rhode Island students and families and sign this moratorium into law.”