Center Maryland: The ABCs of test scores, our children and the economy

Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on on November 13, 2015.

By Donald C. Fry

Often when I meet with high-level corporate executives, small business owners or entrepreneurs the talk turns to hiring needs and workforce capabilities. Interestingly, the refrain I hear time and again in these discussions often goes the same.

Highly desired job applicants need to possess the important “soft” career skills or habits – show up on time, dress appropriately, put in a full day’s fruitful work, treat co-workers with respect and listen to and follow instructions.

But these business executives also want – indeed require – job applicants that have sound, fundamental skills in reading and writing as well as some analytical abilities, which a grasp of math skills can help provide. With these basic skills in hand, many employers are confident that they can train an employee to learn job specific skills to be productive and experience career growth at their company.

This brings us to the Partnership for Assessment of College and Career Readiness (PARCC) test scores that were recently released.

PARCC test results, called the “National Report Card,” released in late October showed Maryland fourth and eighth grade students sliding in mathematics and reading from two years ago.

In fact, Maryland was the only state in the nation to log declining scores in both subjects for the two grades tested. Baltimore City also posted disappointing results.

Test results for public high schools, reported by The Baltimore Sun, don’t paint a rosy picture either.

Some statistics The Sun reported included:

  • In the Baltimore region less than 50 percent of students met the standard for Algebra I.
  • Only about 5 percent of students in the Baltimore region scored in the top category (called proficient) for Algebra I.
  • In Baltimore County only 22 percent of students met the standard for Algebra I.
  • In Baltimore City only 9 percent of students met the standard for Algebra I.

These are sobering numbers to say the least.

Now some people downplay Maryland’s results by noting that the 2015 PARCC test involved a new approach, which sought to gauge a student’s understanding and abilities in reading and math by requiring that they provide more detailed responses, not rote answers.

Specifically, students were required to read, analyze and explain the meaning of what they had read. In math, students had to reason by using math concepts to solve real-world problems, and then justify how they came to that result.

In the past, students selected multiple-choice answers, but were not required to write out answers to express ideas. And in math, students could rely on memorized information and did not need to explain the method and reasoning behind their answer.

All in all, the “new” PARCC test requires more reasoning and analytical thinking than past tests.

When we consider the needs of employers in today’s competitive and complex economy as were referenced earlier, I’d suggest that reasoning and analytical skills are entirely appropriate areas to be measuring to assess a student’s progress and skill sets.

After all, in addition to placing our children in an environment to build important socialization skills, the K-12 school years are essentially about providing our youth with the fundamental learning and skills to enable them to either pursue a higher education degree or to find gainful employment after graduation.

A job is the initial answer to many of life’s challenges and a solid educational background is a critical component to securing gainful employment.

And so the PARCC scores should be met with a sense of bona fide importance, not excuses or dismissal. So let’s avoid long-winded academic debates and assessing blame.

A more appropriate approach is for educators, elected leaders, the business community and civic organizations tied to educational achievement to see these test scores as an alarm bell signaling that we are perhaps overlooking what students really need in school today to adequately prepare them for the job market of tomorrow.

This call to action should result in a detailed plan to achieve significant progress, an implementation approach that all embrace, and a demand for accountability.

Most importantly, we must have a sense of urgency and speed as we move forward.

After all an entire generation of students moving through the public school system today are depending on us to provide them the tools for a successful future.

Don Fry is President and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee and a regular contributor to Center Maryland.

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