By Debbie Tyrrell
Although the numbers released by the New Jersey Department of Education in October showed more than half of New Jersey students in grades three to eleven are not performing at grade level, I’m not losing sleep over it. Of course, I don’t welcome the news that our children – mine included – are not earning the scores we think they deserve, but I also recognize that we’re seeing lower scores because we’re holding our children to a higher standard. In my mind, that is a good thing, and stressing out myself and my child is both impractical and unnecessary.
Like the other 42 other states that have updated and strengthened their academic standards over the past few years, New Jersey is experiencing “growing pains” in our schools. However I truly feel – and I know I am not alone in my views – the transition to high quality standards and aligned state assessments is crucial to improving education throughout our state. We must remain steadfast in our commitment to holding our children to higher standards to equip them with the knowledge necessary to succeed in college and the careers awaiting them.
Countless times over the past several months, we’ve been told to expect a dip in test scores this year. It’s only natural because everyone involved – including teachers, students and parents – were acclimating to the new tests. Also, we’re learning that the old tests weren’t the best measures of students’ abilities to succeed. In spite of students’ glowing performances on NJASK and HSPA, nearly 70 percent of first year community college students and 40 percent of first year students attending public colleges and universities need remedial courses. Not only are many of New Jersey’s high school students graduating unprepared for the next level, but also they’re going into debt to pay for the preparation they should have already received.
Hearing all this, and preparing for the worst, I did my research. I looked for ways to actively help my daughter meet her learning goals. There are tons of online resources about the PARCC scores, and I reviewed sample score reports to gain a better understanding of what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw how the sample score reports differed from the old reports that I’ve been receiving for years for my daughter (and for my other two children before they graduated high school). These reports provide more detailed information than the old test results did – information we can learn from and effectively use to provide our children with the support and encouragement they need to achieve their educational goals.
For the first time, we have in-depth and objective information that reveals exactly where our students are struggling and excelling. For me, it takes some of the mystery out of what’s happening in the classroom; it also provides me an opportunity to participate in my child’s education as an informed partner and discuss ways to achieve key milestones or build upon her successes – something I typically have not done in the past because my child has always done very well in school. The scores release affords an excellent reason to meet with her teachers, and, instead of simply asking, “How is she doing?” I can ask focused questions such as “What kind of support can I give to help build the analytical skills measured in the Mathematical Reasoning section?” or “Can you recommend any books that will help enhance her strong vocabulary skills?”
But we shouldn’t forget that New Jersey’s students are still in the early stages of the transition to more challenging standards and assessments. Our state is a national leader in education because we constantly identify opportunities to improve and stay ahead of the changing times. As my child continues to make this adjustment, she needs my support and encouragement now more than ever. Right now that means that instead of freaking out over the PARCC scores, I should be thinking about using the reports to drive meaningful conversations about improving my daughter’s academic progress.
Debbie Tyrrell is the president of the New Jersey PTA.