PROVIDENCE — Ken Wagner made news on two fronts Monday. The state education commissioner left open the possibility of his departure and he said that Rhode Island should revisit imposing a test-based graduation requirement.    

In a wide-ranging interview, Wagner wouldn't confirm a recent report by The Public's Radio that he is on the way out.

Asked if has decided to move on after three and a half years at the helm of the state Department of Education, his quick answer was "no."

But he also said, "We're trying to figure out when the best time is."

Since early November, rumors have been circulating that Wagner was job hunting — well before the latest standardized test scores were released, raising alarms because Rhode Island's student achievement lagged way behind that of its Massachusetts peers.

Wagner has come under heavy criticism for not requiring high school students to pass a standardized test to graduate, something Massachusetts has demanded for more than a decade.

Yesterday, however, Wagner said he "agreed we should revisit it" but not anytime soon.

Wagner said it doesn't make sense to roll out a new graduation requirement when the public and the schools aren't ready.  In 2014, when then-Commissioner Deborah A. Gist insisted that high school students pass the New England Common Assessment Program, the backlash was vocal and widespread. As more and more educators opposed it, the legislature rolled back the requirement and then Gist postponed it further.

Wagner said Rhode Island might be ready for a test-based graduation requirement in two or three years, when educators and elected officials have a chance to dig into the latest test scores. Next year, he said, the education department will release data on students who have reached proficiency on the Rhode Island Common Assessment Program or RICAS, called a commissioner's seal, side-by-side with high school graduation rates.

"I'm not opposed to it. Just not right now," Wagner said. "Let everyone digest the dramatic gaps between high school graduation rates and student proficiency and then revisit it.

"If you change the graduation requirements, everyone is going to bank on (the belief) that we're going to blink," he said. "The legislature will step in again. We have to go in sequenced steps. Massachusetts had all sorts of alternate pathways to graduation. What Massachusetts created is all sorts of wiggle room. But we had no tolerance for that."

Wagner said one of the biggest challenges is the "quality gap" between what the state standards expect of Rhode Island's students and what actually happens in the classroom.

"It's no one's fault," he said. "In my three and a half years, I've only seen four classrooms that challenge kids at the levels the standards require. We are dramatically under-challenging our kids."

Wagner also reacted to other startling findings revealed in the latest statewide education report cards released by RIDE.

— On the high rates of chronic teacher absenteeism, particularly in Providence and Central Falls, Wagner said the typical response is to blame teachers, and he said that's not fair. 

"If absenteeism rates are high," he said, "there is something wrong with the school ... with its climate and culture. Our first role is shining a light on this. Every school is talking about this. We have named it."

Rhode Island is the only state to use teacher absenteeism as a measure of school effectiveness. 

— On whether Rhode Island should adopt the Bay State's education standards, Wagner said they are almost identical. The difference lies in how those standards are adopted in the classroom. Wagner said he is willing to take a closer look at how Massachusetts introduces those expectations to schools and classrooms. 

— On the need for a statewide curriculum, which some politicians have called for, Wagner acknowledged that the existing collection of curricula is "totally incoherent."

"You have curricula that varies widely not only between school districts but between schools," he said. "It doesn't mean we need identical curricula. It means everyone has to have access to quality curricula" — which the Department of Education has been working on with school leaders for the past two years.

When the abysmal RICAS scores were announced, everyone pointed the finger at Wagner.

"My job is to absorb all of that and stay with the work," he said. "This is part of the arc of Rhode Island's change."