by Governor Tom Kean
in the The Star-Ledger on Monday, October 26, 2015

Now that the statewide PARCC results have been released, we need to get to work and use these new scores as a tool to improve the education of our children. New Jersey is a leader in education, which is why it is imperative that we seize this moment to learn from the new test scores, make improvements and set an example for the rest of the country.

The new statewide results present a more honest and accurate indication of how well our students are prepared for college and their careers. I would have liked to have had access to this more accurate measuring stick when I served as governor. Furthermore, in coming weeks, districts, schools, teachers, parents and students will have access to more detailed score reports, which will be powerful tools that every educator and parent can use across the state to help students do even better.

The PARCC scores provide a new and much-needed benchmark, one that more closely aligns with the higher quality education standards we have set and measures skills like critical thinking, persuasive writing and problem-solving. This new benchmark will give us more honest and accurate assessments of how well students comprehend and are able to apply these skills. And if we are being really honest, the National Assessment of Educational Progress has been telling us we’ve needed a better measure for years.

A few months ago, an independent education organization, Achieve, released a report that looked at student proficiency rates on state tests and compared those rates to NAEP proficiency data. NAEP — the “Nation’s Report Card” — is considered the gold standard in student assessment and provides a common measurement across states.

The Achieve report specifically looked at fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math, because these are strong indicators of later academic success for students. The study found that states are reporting proficiency rates significantly higher than what NAEP is showing, actively contributing to an “honesty gap.” In fact, for the 2013-14 school year, New Jersey showed an 18-point difference between state-reported proficiency scores and NAEP scores in fourth-grade reading, and a 23-point difference in eighth-grade math.

This means that our state assessment, the NJ ASK, was telling us that 60 percent of fourth-graders were hitting grade-level benchmarks in reading but, truth be told, only 42 percent were. In eighth-grade math, NJ ASK said more than 70 percent of our students reached proficiency, but NAEP revealed that the actual rate was 49 percent. This honesty gap has contributed to an over-inflated sense of college- and career-readiness in our state. Other states have also inflated their results to make it seem that their students are doing better. The good news is that New Jersey is working to correct our problems.

In 2010, New Jersey adopted rigorous academic standards aligned to the skills students need to be successful in college and careers. We then pursued an accurate, aligned assessment that gives us the most truthful measure of those skills, and PARCC gets us there. It is unacceptable that about 40 percent of students attending New Jersey public colleges and universities need remediation, and approximately 70 percent of entering freshmen at New Jersey community colleges do, as well. We must start earlier and ensure that students are truly prepared.

The PARCC exam is a more honest reflection of how our students are doing. It’s also a powerful tool for parents and teachers to assess a child’s performance and to identify learning gaps.

For the first time, state assessment score reports provide performance data on specific skill sets so we can see where our students are excelling or where they need additional support. Parents will be able to understand their child’s strengths and weaknesses and can work to provide additional support at home. Parents can also work with their children’s teachers to develop a plan to address areas in need of improvement. Districts and schools will be able to drive more effective instruction, offer more specific support and provide informed enrichment activities. As a teacher in my early years, I wish I had had this valuable tool to guide instruction for my own students.

We in New Jersey must continue to be a leader in education and stay ahead of the curve to ensure our children succeed in college and beyond. To fulfill that promise, we must hold our students to the highest standards and be honest and accurate about how they are doing. As we examine the PARCC results, we can begin to close the honesty gap and give students, parents and teachers the tools they need to prepare students so there are no surprises when they reach college or work.

Tom Kean was governor of New Jersey from 1982 to 1990. He has also served as chairman of the 9/11 Commission and president of Drew University. Gov. Kean is currently the co-chair of the board of JerseyCAN: The New Jersey Campaign for Achievement Now. He began his career as a teacher.


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