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Maryland PARCC test results confirm the need for Kirwan

William E. "Brit" Kirwan, chairman of the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, is advocating for wide-ranging reforms in how Maryland teaches students from pre-K through high school.
William E. "Brit" Kirwan, chairman of the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, is advocating for wide-ranging reforms in how Maryland teaches students from pre-K through high school. (Joshua McKerrow / Capital Gazett /)

Maryland has been giving the PARCC test for five years, and the results have barely budged. When the first numbers came out in 2015, educators cautioned parents not to worry that just 39 percent of students in grades three through eight scored proficient or better on reading and just 29 percent did on math. The test was new and designed to be hard, and scores would go up rapidly as teachers adapted to the new material and expectations and as students had more time to learn under the new standards.

Maryland student achievement in math has long lagged behind reading, and this year’s test results show not much has changed.

If that’s all it would take, we should have seen the big improvements by now. The third-graders who took the latest test weren’t even in Kindergarten yet when the first test was administered, and the eighth graders have spent their entire academic careers learning under the Common Core standards on which the tests are based. Yet statewide, on average, scores have gone up less than one percentage point per year in both subjects. And the disparities in results based on race, income and other measures are still gaping. For example, white students outscored African-Americans by 29.7 percentage points in reading five years ago. Now it’s 30.5 percentage points. The racial disparity in math has grown by almost 3 points, and disparities between students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals and those who don’t have barely budged.

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If our current educational system was capable of producing better results, it would have done so by now. The problem is not the test. Yes, it may be too long, and its administration may be unwieldy. As of next year, it will be scrapped in favor of a new assessment designed by Maryland educators — but not with the goal of making it easier to pass. We still need to ensure that we are producing students who will leave high school ready for a career or college, and it is increasingly clear that the way we train teachers and develop their skills, educate the youngest learners, provide supports for students at risk of falling behind and structure our educational pathways for students from pre-K through high school are not up to the task.

Fortunately, Maryland has before it a plan to fix that. For the last three years, a group of experts representing a variety of constituencies in education have been closely examining the question of what we need to do to make Maryland’s public schools truly competitive by international standards. The Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, known by the name of its chairman, former University System of Maryland Chancellor William E. “Brit” Kirwan, focused intensively on what higher-performing states and nations do differently. They produced a set of recommendations to provide early and sustained help for students at risk of falling behind, change the structure of the school day to give teachers more time and support to offer such individualized attention, raise the standards of the teaching profession, and cope with the non-academic barriers to success that low-income students face.

If you’ve heard about the Kirwan Commission lately, it’s probably in the context of a debate between advocates for its plan and Gov. Larry Hogan, who has repeatedly questioned whether it is affordable and recently called it “half-baked.” We acknowledge that funding will be a challenge. The commission estimates that when fully phased in over a decade, the plan would call for Maryland to spend about $3.8 billion more per year on education than we do now, which is about 30% more than the budget for schools would grow over that time under current policies. But we also believe it’s important for Marylanders to realize that Kirwan isn’t about throwing more money at schools and hoping for the best. It’s about enacting evidence-based reforms to the way we teach children that will prepare them to succeed as adults.

What we’re doing now isn’t working. We are failing in our moral and legal obligation to provide all students with the opportunities that education can provide. If Governor Hogan believes Kirwan isn’t the answer, what’s his plan?

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