PARCC results reveal a sobering truth

Low scores are no reason to back away from PARCC. They are reason to embrace it.

President Barack Obama said over the weekend that he thinks high-stakes standardized testing has gone too far (a problem he admits to having helped create). This morning, Gov. Larry Hogan announced the membership of a committee to evaluate Maryland's standardized testing, declaring, "It is clear to most Marylanders that we are over-testing our students and the process needs to be greatly improved." And then a few hours later the Maryland State Department of Education released the first results from the state's new, Common Core-aligned standardized tests showing that less than half of Maryland students got passing grades on 10th grade English, Algebra I and Algebra II.

It would be tempting to look at those figures and join the chorus of those arguing that the exams, known as PARCC, are too hard, too time consuming and too distracting from the actual business of teaching and learning in the classroom. But the truth is, they tell us something we need to know, something that has been obscured by years of steadily rising scores on our old tests and seemingly perennial top rankings for Maryland's schools. Disturbing percentages of Maryland's high school graduates are unprepared for college or careers, and that unwelcome distinction falls much more heavily on African-Americans, Hispanics, special education students and English language learners.

The news is particularly sobering when it comes to African-American students, who achieved scores indicating college and career readiness at rates of just 25.2 percent in English, 12.8 percent in Algebra I and 5.8 percent in Algebra II. But it also should not come as much of a surprise.

According to data compiled by Complete College America, 63.1 percent of Maryland students entering community college require remedial course work in one or more subjects, as do 37.8 percent of those entering non-flagship four-year colleges. For African-American students, those numbers jump to 73.6 percent for two-year colleges and nearly 80 percent for non-flagship four-year colleges. Even those figures may understate the problem. The University of Maryland's Equity Project reported this week that the percentage of Maryland high school graduates enrolling in higher education has dropped sharply in the last few years, with lower-income and African-American students disproportionately responsible for the decline. The assessment PARCC offers of Maryland students may be harsh, but it's not necessarily wrong.

The tests are new, and Maryland officials should by all means examine them carefully to make sure they are rigorously aligned with the curriculum being taught and the skills students need to learn to succeed in life. Already, the state department of education has made changes to reduce the testing time by 90 minutes and to administer the exams in a way that will be less disruptive of the school schedule. But we should not dumb down our standards of success, as Ohio and other states have done, nor should we follow Florida's lead and dump the PARCC exam in favor of something new — and potentially even more problematic. Maryland's students, parents and educators have been through enough upheaval in the last few years as the schools have transitioned to new, Common Core-aligned curriculums. Switching again would only put today's students at further disadvantage.

Every time Maryland has introduced a new standardized test, scores have started out low and gotten better over time. That stands to reason; it takes time for teachers to learn how best to instruct students in the kinds of skills the tests assess. Saying that teachers get better at teaching to the test is only a criticism insofar as the tests aren't well aligned with the knowledge and skills students need to succeed in life. The Common Core and PARCC were designed specifically with that in mind, but it will take years to fully evaluate whether they succeed.

In the meantime, they offer the opportunity to assess in much greater detail how individual students are mastering particular skills, and because the exams are increasingly being conducted online (80 percent of Maryland students took them that way last year) the results will be available quickly enough for teachers to intervene appropriately for those who are falling behind. The real measure is not how well students do this year — even comparisons with other states are fraught because of differences in implementation — but how well educators are able to use these results to improve students' skills.

We continue to believe that it is reasonable for some portion of teachers' performance evaluations on their students' growth in these exams — but not until they have had a chance to master the new material themselves. The state board has taken a go-slow approach in holding either teachers or students accountable for the results of these exams, and it should continue in that vein until we have a more robust understanding of the appropriateness of the specific material being tested and of the best ways to teach it.

But the bottom line is that parents deserve to know whether their children are learning what they need to succeed, and we do them no favors by backing away from the unpleasant truth that large numbers of our students lag behind their international peers. PARCC offers the possibility that we can not only measure accurately how they stack up but can find new and personalized ways to help them succeed. We need to give it a chance to live up to that promise.

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