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Editorial: Student gains a strong reason to keep PARCC

New Mexico students posted modest year-over-year percentage increases in English and math proficiency on this year’s controversial PARCC exam, with gains of 2.5 percentage points in reading and 1.9 points in math.

And while those gains may not seem like much, they actually represent thousands more students able to read and do math at grade level, certainly reason to celebrate. More than that, it’s reason for N.M.’s two leading candidates for governor to think twice about scrapping it.

Since 2015, when the state began using the PARCC standardized test, 13,000 more students have become proficient in reading and 11,000 more in math. According to the state Public Education Department, 9,000 of those students were in this last academic year alone.

Indeed, statewide proficiency rates are at the highest since New Mexico began administering PARCC.

“This is what happens when we stay the course,” state Education Secretary-designate Christopher Ruszkowski told Journal editors and reporters this week. “… When we create consistency, when we create stability, then educators and schools and communities can do the hard work, of improving instruction, extending learning time, and nurturing the whole child.”

To be sure, New Mexico still has a long way to go.

The 2018 data released to the public on Thursday shows that 21.6 percent of students tested from grades three to 11 are proficient in math and 31.1 percent are proficient in reading. Put another way, slightly more than one in five students who took the test were proficient in math, while fewer than one in three were proficient in reading.

Ruszkowski points out that districts that embraced PED reforms from the beginning and took advantage of available programs like Principals Pursuing Excellence have shown double-digit gains, while those that didn’t have shown only modest gains.

Critics of the PARCC exam downplay the steady gains in proficiency students have shown and argue we’ve actually slipped backward.

“As other states continue to drop the use of the PARCC exam, lawmakers and candidates in New Mexico also recognize the PARCC exam is not serving our students well,” American Federation of Teachers New Mexico President Stephanie Ly said this week in a statement. “Coupled with the continued use of the PARCC exam to determine graduation decisions, professional educators know we must do better for our students. The truth is we don’t have much to show for PED’s choice to waste tens of millions of dollars on the PARCC exam over the last four years.”

There’s no question that PARCC has become a lightning rod, and that some states have retooled their versions of it. But here’s the reality:

Eleven states and entities continue to administer the PARCC or a version of it. While Ly and others complain about the expense of and time dedicated to taking PARCC, it only costs $12 per test per student to find out if they are on track in reading and math. The average student in grades three through 11 spends just 9 hours out of 180 school days taking both the English and math PARCC. It counts at most for just 35 percent of a teacher’s evaluation. And if the next governor decides to scrap the test, we will have to spend millions more developing and implementing a new one. Eliminating PARCC and not replacing it with something else is not an option.

Worse yet, our state would be flushing all baseline data on student achievement down the toilet, meaning it would likely be three years before the state could establish a new baseline to determine whether students are improving from year to year. It would force school districts and educators to start from scratch, students to learn a new system, and everyone would get a three-year pass on accountability.

No, PARCC isn’t perfect. But it’s aligned with common core math and reading standards signed into law by former Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat.

There’s no question that New Mexico has set the bar high for teachers and students in an effort to ensure those who graduate from high school are ready for college or career. As the latest PARCC results show, students and teachers from Farmington to Hobbs and Central Consolidated to Artesia are rising to meet it. The number of Albuquerque Public Schools students testing proficient in reading rose more than 3 percent in the past year.

Some would have our state water down those rigorous standards and assessments. But if our high school grads aren’t prepared for college or work, then a diploma won’t be worth the paper it’s printed on. N.M. students and educators have spent four years proving they are up to the challenge.

Gubernatorial candidates shouldn’t sell those efforts short.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.