Watching New Mexico Public Education Department officials continue to justify PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) testing reminds me of that joke, “What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?” The answer’s bound to be bleak, with a foregone and absurd conclusion. But in this case, the joke is also unconscionable, because the education of New Mexico’s young people is part of the punch line.
The state's initial PARCC test scores for high schools indicate that 3 out of 4 students will have to retake the math portion of the exam. In Santa Fe, 65 percent of students failed the Algebra II portion of the test, which is a graduation requirement. Though this is disappointing news, it's a more disappointing example of the humiliation our public education officials are willing to put struggling students through to assert their will.
At a press conference accompanying the release of the initial PARCC test scores, Education Secretary Hanna Skandera confidently stated the obvious: "Our students didn't get worse. Our teachers didn't get worse." Though these comments were probably meant to support teachers and students, they offered little consolation to us watching this collision between a determined bureaucracy and parents, students and teachers who are actually concerned about the quality of education in New Mexico, and we are perhaps asking, "What exactly are you doing to help students and teachers improve learning outcomes in general, not just those measured as learning shortfalls on the PARCC tests?"
The PARCC tests, and therefore any scores resulting from them, are based on arbitrary standards promoted by Pearson, a multinational testing corporation. Pearson and its stakeholders (investors, politicians, lobbyists, suppliers) are committed to the business of testing, not the process of actual education. Worst yet, our officials appear to be with them.
What's exceedingly perverse in this Greek tragedy that is New Mexico's approach to improving schools—with students, teachers, parents and teachers unions acting as chorus—is that investing in proven strategies to increase the quality of education appears to be off the table.
Surely, if education is the goal, our officials would prioritize and invest in budgets, teachers, proven and innovative curricula for math and science, after-school tutoring, dual-language programs and so on (see this week's cover story on page 13). But contrary to the slogan on the New Mexico public education website, "Kids First, New Mexico Wins," the focus has been, and remains, PARCC testing.
It is an absurdity that PARCC is being offered as a panacea for the myriad institutional and educational challenges confronting our schools. For all the things that testing is—a way to measure proficiency, an increasingly lucrative business for corporate interests, an expedient tactic for politicians to be able to say they've "done something for the cause of education" and a way to measure failure and success—testing is not the solution for fixing our schools. If it were, it would have worked by now.
So when our top education officials, in the face of demoralizing test scores, state without compunction, "What we know is, that we did the right thing. We should be applauding the state's decision to raise the standards," with no alternative plan to help both students and teachers succeed, something in us all should revolt.
Here's the Thing: New Mexico public schools are dehydrated and perishing in the desert, while our officials, counting on the fact that those dying of thirst will drink what's available, pour PARCC down our throats. Just as the state Public Education Department is sticking with its story about testing being the answer for troubled schools, as they are also sticking by Pearson (the testing corporation for PARCC), we should stand by the fact that, "Testing is not teaching." Be it graduation rates or test scores, we really lose if we don't first educate. This we know.
Andrea L. Mays is an American Studies scholar and a Santa Fean. Write the author: firstname.lastname@example.org