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Debates over education policy worth having

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New Mexico is not the only place where there’s currently an election on. Not coincidentally, it’s one of many places where public education — almost always a topic of debate, everywhere — is even more a subject of scrutiny and disagreement than usual.

Every state has its own set of unique issues, but some big-picture topics are more or less universal, especially when candidates look to set themselves apart in terms of what makes them the right choice for an area’s present, and especially its future. Two that work hand-in-hand and are often spoken about in the same breath: job creation/the economy — and of course, education. Perhaps no subject speaks more to a state or region’s climb toward a best-case-scenario economic future than how prepared its young people will be to meet it.

And education is an emotionally-charged issue, because at the heart of the discussion are kids, and how their futures stand to shape up.

For better of worse, standardized testing is the most visible measuring stick when it comes to judging our collective efforts at educating today’s youth, tomorrow’s workforce, tomorrow’s leaders.

New Mexico uses the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers), which is aimed at measuring — through testing children in reading and math — just what the name suggests. Republican candidate for governor Steve Pearce has expressed concerns with how quickly (not quickly enough) schools are able to view their PARCC results. His Democratic opponent Michelle Lujan Grisham has suggested scrapping the system and perhaps developing a new test altogether.

New Mexico Education Secretary Christopher Ruszkowski, who was in Roswell last week to recognize the achievements of some of our local schools — part of his Straight A Express Tour — stopped by the Roswell Daily Record to discuss a number of education-related topics. PARCC was one of the subjects touched upon.

He said the test is rigorous, and by measuring foundational skills — math and reading — it “closes the honesty gap,” giving a true assessment of how prepared kids will be to meet future challenges. He thinks the system is a good one, the state has a lot invested in it and this would be the wrong time to make a change. “The vast majority of teachers and principals that I’ve talked to have said that spending a ton of money, a ton of energy and a ton of time to simply reinvent the wheel would not be worth it,” Ruszkowski said, adding, “The small but loud group of people that are speaking ill of the PARCC are setting up an anti-accountability Trojan horse. It is a move toward dismantling accountability.”

In additional to measuring preparedness for higher education and/or the workforce, the PARCC, Ruszkowski says, assesses readiness for other standardized tests: the ACT, SAT — and the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress), referred to as The Nation’s Report Card, which is given every other year.

It’s the NAEP that determines where New Mexico stands in that 1-50 ranking we hear so much about. “It’s a big concern for New Mexicans, that you hear people say ‘we’re still at the bottom — yeah, we’re making progress, but we’re still at the bottom,’” Ruszkowski said.

The secretary talks about preparing kids for the jobs of the 21st century — “What I think New Mexico needs is more entrepreneurs … more business leaders, more innovators” — and thinks initiatives begun under outgoing Gov. Susana Martinez have the state’s education system pointed in the right direction.

Looking at the achievements of the Roswell schools recognized last week, and others like them around New Mexico, one can see the cause for his enthusiasm. But statewide New Mexico faces an uphill climb.

This may not be the only place where education and standardized testing are current topics of conversation, even controversy. But despite the efforts of many talented educators and students, New Mexico is “still at the bottom” in those most recent national rankings, as people point out to Ruszkowski. That does make the discussion here a little more urgent, and politics aside, well worth having.

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John Dilmore is editor of the Roswell Daily Record. He can be reached at editor@rdrnews.com. The views expressed in this column are those of the author.