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Letters from students show the system isn’t working

SANTA FE, N.M. — When your children are very young, the letters they write are precious – rough, blocky penmanship full of fractured grammar, misspellings and leaps of logic that epitomize the exuberance of youth. You save those letters, knowing that when your children get older they will find them as silly as you do endearing.

But what happens when those letters that seem to be from early elementary students with a rudimentary grasp of grammar, spelling and logic are written by kids in high school?

This column is not about the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) exam – hated in some quarters, praised in others – though that is the topic of student letters that form the basis of our exercise today.

And this certainly isn’t intended to make fun of the academic abilities of some of the state’s high school students. But it is a lesson in what happens when a state and a K-12 school system do not have benchmarks in place that really mean something – either as a measure of student achievement or growth.

Before the PARCC testing window opened this month, high school students from Santa Fe sent letters of protest to New Mexico Education Secretary Hanna Skandera. I filed a public records request to get copies of those letters, 165 in total.

They are stunning, and not in a good way. But before we get to how much basic grammar and spelling remedial work these high schoolers need (the examples given truly are a representation of the majority of the letters), it’s important to look at another tenet of English/language arts – theme.

There is a unifying message underneath students’ bravado, their dares to Education Secretary Hanna Skandera to take the PARCC practice herself (she did as did all members of her leadership team) and the clear signals that the letter writing was a class assignment for many (same title and key points) as well as an exercise in plagiarism (identical wording down to the misspellings).

That underlying message: fear. Students wrote their letters before the PARCC was ever administered in New Mexico, and the assumptions within those letters show rampant misinformation feeding that fear. That’s wrong and needless, and it speaks to miscommunication at best and deliberately fomenting fear among children for political gain at worst.

“Even 1st year college students can’t pass it.”

“we are not prepared for it we will fail it and kids that are depending on this test to pass will be disappointed in them self’s”

“I mean we can barely pass the SBA. We’re 50th in the state when it comes to education. … We’re not trying to cause Kaos.”

“I will not be able to focus or feel comfortable if I am taking a test that determines my future.”

“what if everyone fails”

First some PARCC background that should have been provided to students before testing to alleviate concerns: New Mexico adopted the Common Core curriculum, supported by the Obama administration, in 2010, and its schools have been transitioning for three years. Skandera’s chief of staff, Ellen Hur, says the old standards were “a mile wide and an inch deep” and teachers had binders full of what they were expected to teach in a school year.

In contrast, under Common Core teachers cover “fundamental skills.” For example, rather than have a student read a piece of literature and then write about a personal experience similar to what a character dealt with, Hur says, Common Core teaches students to read for comprehension and analysis. For example, “Can you back up/disprove a statement about the reading with the text?”

That’s a “core skill,” Hur says, “not knowledge of old lessons.”

The PARCC was designed by teachers, principals and testing coordinators from the participating states and the District of Columbia to evaluate skills gleaned from Common Core. It has not been administered anywhere until this testing window, so no one – not a college student and not a teacher – has failed it.

Hur says you “can’t memorize” for PARCC. It’s “hard-core academic know-how and skills.” Rather than a mile wide and an inch deep, it’s narrower, deeper knowledge.

“Passing” scores will be determined after the 10 participating states and the District of Columbia look at this year’s results, compare them with the prior year’s SBA results and establish an equitable rate of improvement. Hur says the consortium will determine the fairest “cut,” i.e. passing, score, taking into consideration that sophomores and juniors have had to switch from the Standards Based Assessment late in their academic game.

And because there are “alternative demonstrations of competency” that students can use to qualify for graduation, a failing PARCC result does not automatically mean you won’t get a diploma.

The letters

However, the student letters raise concerns about whether a student should graduate if he or she writes in an official letter such things as:

“Dear Super Intendent”

“Parcc test is stupid.”

Protests are “not a waist of time”

“im important”

“I want to make my voice be heared … If you want to knew more see, and hear me”

“they can’t keep put new test on us for no reason … they think there helping us but there not!”

“We are going to fight for change until your demands our meet.”

“We the students as my self have 13 years of school and we learn and that’s how we climb up the latter and make it to the top so we succeed.”

“you try doing the test and see who we feel.”

“Does the PARCC affect weather I past the 9th grade”

“We want to dont take the Parc test cause we are not learning enithing”

Each of these excerpts was taken from a different high school student’s letter. Only one voiced support, writing, “You can not expect to just go through high school without any tests or struggles. Take the test and move on is what I believe should be done.”

Under PED’s plan, students take the test and the results are used to get them any remedial help they need to move on. A look at student letters shows we don’t have to wait for the PARCC scores this fall to see that help is desperately needed.

Right now.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to assistant editorial page editor D’Val Westphal at 823-3858 or Go to to submit a letter to the editor.

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