Growing up in Roswell in the 1980s and playing basketball meant you had two games a year against the Ralph Tasker-led Hobbs Eagles. You knew every game involved a full-court press that was relentless. So we worked harder in practice to figure out ways to handle the pressure and stress of those impending games, knowing that in order to win we had to put forth our best efforts. Now I am a high school English teacher, tasked with a different form of pressure and stress, including preparing students for the PARCC test.
PARCC testing had a less-than-successful beginning in New Mexico’s schools in 2014. There were protests by students, uproar from school boards, and great disdain from many legislators during that initial year. I, too, was on the fence since it meant I had to revamp my teaching to meet the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which is what the PARCC test is designed to assess. After the first turbulent year and the subsequent three years of testing, PARCC is now accepted by many educators in New Mexico as a great tool for assessing student abilities in math and English. I am among them.
This past school year, 2017-2018, 86 percent of my sophomores and juniors either met or exceeded expectations for the English portion of the PARCC assessment. This means those sophomores are on track to meet the graduation requirement, and the juniors have met the graduation requirement in English. So, what does this tell me as an educator?
Every year I review the English language student data for our school, and more importantly for my students. I look to see where they have strengths and weaknesses, so that I know where to connect those strong student skills with areas and skills that need to be further developed to improve achievement. I do not look for shortcuts or ways to teach to the test, but instead develop better ways to teach the CCSS standards that are being assessed. This reflecting on student success or failure helps me to improve as a teacher.
When PARCC was initially introduced there was an uproar about the test being too hard, taking too long and being bad for our state. My students this spring completed three 105-minute sections for the English portion of the exam, less than one complete day of school, not the entire spring as some would want you to believe. I had the results for my student scores by the middle of June, a timely response considering each section of the test had a major writing component.
These results show what students from New Mexico are capable of doing in the classroom. We continually hear how if you want to achieve greatness, hard work and perseverance will get you to that mountain top. New Mexico’s students have the potential to compete with students from around the country, but we must provide them with the opportunities stemming from the CCSS to develop the necessary academic skills. We obsessively provide these opportunities to our students when it comes to sporting and extracurricular activities, so why do we make excuses for academics?
Reviewing my student data reassures me that my students are on track to be college- and career-ready. Isn’t that what every parent wants when the tears are shed that first day of kindergarten? Do students, teachers, parents and community members want to go back four years, disrupt what has been finally smoothed out with PARCC testing, and start all over with new assessments just because we can? New Mexico has set a higher achievement bar for measuring student growth and now it is up to teachers, students, and education policymakers to prepare for that higher expectation, just like preparing to play the Hobbs Eagles.
Joel Hutchinson teaches Honors and AP English courses at Centennial High School in Las Cruces Public Schools. He is a Teach Plus New Mexico Teaching Policy Fellowship alum.