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Star Ledger N.J. education must change for children to remain competitive: Opinion

By  Star-Ledger Guest Columnist 
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on March 03, 2015 at 12:00 PM, updated March 03, 2015 at 12:05 PM

By Tom Kean

Every now and then you run across a fact that makes you sit up and take notice. According to the New Jersey Secretary of Higher Education, nearly half (47 percent) of first year, full-time public college and university students in New Jersey need to retake high school math or English classes. So that means almost half of our college students are retaking courses that they should have taken in high school. That's expensive and time-consuming for students and their parents.

This reminds us that in spite of all our work, our children still aren't moving fast enough to compete in a changing world.

But what do we do? And how do we reconcile this with that fact that New Jersey students consistently outperform others by most measures? The answer is that we cannot relax or feel comfortable. Our children deserve better. In this state and in this country we must discover our weaknesses and do what is necessary to fix them. Our future depends on it.

New Jersey has taken several of the right steps. In 2010, we adopted higher quality standards aligned to the skills children need to be successful in college and careers. We then started a long collaborative process with hundreds of educators, dozens of universities and several other states to build better assessments to help understand whether our children are meeting learning expectations enough to progress. Our state has historically been among the nation's leaders in academic performance - precisely because we stay ahead of the learning curve. Now is not the time to turn back. 

We have a long-standing tradition going back to the 1980s of establishing statewide academic goals (also known as "standards") for each grade and subject. A component of this tradition is administering annual assessments to ensure students are meeting those standards. We look to testing so that we can gauge the success and ability of our students and identify learning gaps that we need to address. But as time passes, and the world has become increasingly complex, we must embrace change. Now that the world is changing once again, we must change with it.

We have a long-standing tradition going back to the 1980s of establishing statewide academic goals for each grade and subject.

PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) tests continue New Jersey's tradition of excellence in schools and represent the next logical step in maintaining our role as a national leader in education. Simply put, they are designed to be the best tests we have ever had and will be more effective in providing teachers information to address students' needs.

Admittedly, students will spend a little more time taking the PARCC assessment than they did with its predecessors, NJASK and HSPA. According to the New Jersey Department Of Education, the estimated time for completing the PARCC test over two separate testing windows is 6.5 to 7.5 hours. Over the course of a 1,200-hour school year, this is a small investment - and well worth the return. The detail and quality of the information that educators receive from the tests will help us know if they are progressing and how they can improve. These are not additional tests but new and better assessments to meet the changing times. 

PARCC is fully aligned with New Jersey's academic standards, as are the SAT, the ACT and other important tools used in our children's educational development. The PARCC tests are also administered through computers - another essential innovation that will help students prepare for the future. And PARCC's questions are designed by educators, not bureaucrats - 30 teachers review every test item for fairness and efficacy. In short, PARCC is built upon the best practices that teachers already know and employ. Now, they can truly assess students' grasp of our state's academic standards - rather than just memorizing facts. Why would any parent want to opt out of that?

This is the inaugural year of PARCC testing, and state policymakers have made it clear that any improvements we need to make next year will be made. Further, to give teachers and students time to transition to the new assessments, the state has said that it will not use PARCC for high school graduation requirements until at least 2019.

These assessments will be building on a quarter of a century of education progress in New Jersey. The world is not stopping, and neither can we. Our kids will have to compete with students from Europe, India, China and elsewhere around the world in a way that was not required in our generation. This test, designed by great teachers (many from New Jersey), is the best way to find out how we are doing in preparing our children for the challenges they must face. Once we learn this, teachers and parents can work together to ensure that our children are receiving the best possible education to prepare them for the world they will face. 

Tom Kean served as 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. He began his career as a teacher.

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