Baltimore city students staged a walk out in protest of the PARCC test, saying it perpetuates the "school to prison pipeline." (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun video)
Maryland students did somewhat better this year on the state's tough new standardized tests compared to last year's results. But the gains were relatively small, and they also showed the state still has a long way to go toward closing the achievement gap along racial and socioeconomic lines. Moreover, despite the modest improvements in performance seen this year, more than half of all the state's students were still unable to pass the exam.
That doesn't necessarily mean the test is too hard, however, or that educators erred in replacing the old High School Assessment tests that students previously had taken for more than a decade. What is does suggest is that educators and parents are going to have to be patient as school systems adjust to the higher academic standards on which the tests are based.
The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers tests are designed to measure advanced skills such as critical thinking and creative problem-solving rather than rote learning — skills that are essential to school and career success in the knowledge-based global economy.
They also reflect the more challenging curriculum of the Common Core, a set of high-quality academic goals in mathematics and in English language arts and literacy that outline what a student should ideally know and be able to do at the end of each grade. Teachers are still learning the most effective ways of getting the new material across to students, and it may take a few years before the pace of improvement picks up. That's why there's no cause for alarm — yet — over what was expected all along to be a temporary drop in test scores as educators revised their old teaching methods and strategies to incorporate the new standards.
But raising the academic bar by itself won't eliminate or even reduce the long standing racial and socioeconomic disparities in student achievement levels. For that to happen the state needs to make a concerted effort to work with local school districts to address the needs of poor and minority students and lower the barriers to success that they face.
This year, for example, the pass rates among African-American students taking the PARCC tests were about 10 percentage points lower than the state average across most subjects and grades. The pass rates for Hispanic, Latino and low-income students also lagged, and English language learners — including immigrants and second-generation Latino students — had the lowest pass rates of all.
The higher academic standards embodied in the PARCC tests aren't the reason such inequalities persist, however. There's no question that today's high school graduates need to master more advanced intellectual skills than their predecessors, whether they're going on to college, vocational training or a job.
That's where after-school and summer school instruction, mentoring and counseling programs and other enrichment initiatives can make a real difference in students' ability to excel. Maryland is right to set the bar high to encourage students to strive for their full potential, but it must also offer them the kind of opportunities both inside and outside the classroom that will help them reach it.