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Testing for the future means accepting low scores today

PARCC scores show small gains in Maryland.
PARCC scores show small gains in Maryland. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

The motivational set loves quotes like this one, funnily enough attributed both to Henry Ford and Soichiro Honda: "Success is 99 percent failure."

They may know more about cars than test scores, but it would be interesting to have them kick the tires on the school assessment test results released Tuesday. Just 41 percent of Maryland's third-through-eighth-grade students passed the English exam and 33 percent passed the one for math.

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While no one would consider the results of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, tests a success, they also should not be considered an abject failure — either on the part of the students and teachers themselves, or of the still new measurement tool for that matter.

Three years into PARCC, educators surely had hoped for greater improvement. And yet, the fact that the scores reflect quite the spacious room for improvement tends to support the mission of PARCC: It is a harder test than what it replaced, the Maryland School Assessments — and it needs to be.

It is hard to overstate what a ground-shifting endeavor schools in Maryland and other states have undertaken in adopting the more rigorous Common Core curriculum, which sets a standard for what students should know and be able to master at each grade level. That is what PARCC measures, and it is unsurprising that students haven't gone from zero to 60 in three years.

This is not a feel-good, at-least-they-tried argument; no one is giving out participation trophies for sub-par results. Quite the opposite: The point of the tough curriculum, and a test that assesses whether its benchmarks are achieved, is preparation — for college and beyond. It's hardly breaking news that a college degree is increasingly required for the best-paying jobs — in 2015, 55 percent of the so-called "good jobs" called for a degree, compared to 40 percent in 1991, according to a Georgetown University study. And yet, all too many students arrive on college campuses academically unprepared: the Baltimore Education Research Consortium found several years ago that nearly three-quarters of the city's public high school graduates who entered college needed remedial math classes.

The PARCC scores indicate that may still be true, with under 12 percent of Baltimore passing the math test and 15 percent passing the English test.

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These are sobering numbers, however new the test is. There may be no need to panic immediately, but there is a need for a certain urgency. While we have called for patience in the past as educators and students grow more accustomed to the curriculum and test — and do so again now — we know these scores obviously aren't going to rise on their own.

As Sun reporters Liz Bowie and Tim Prudente noted, there are initiatives under way that could raise achievement — a new math curriculum will be introduced in the city this school year, Baltimore County found that schools where students were given laptops outperformed the district as a whole, and a special focus on math instruction in Anne Arundel middle schools seemed to have netted much improved PARCC scores.

There is, however, one especially troublesome takeaway from this year's PARCC scores that educators need to heed and act on: a growing achievement gap in which the test scores of white and Asian students are rising faster than their black counterparts. To allow that to widen unchecked every year would be malpractice.

Officials have, correctly, noted this achievement gap is not unique to Maryland. But there's a big difference between acknowledging that and accepting it as an unalterable fact of life. It is not. Research has shown that the gap has narrowed in the past, meaning there's no reason it can't again in the future. Doing that would truly fulfill the common part of Common Core.

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