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First Person

Mind the Gap: New Mexico children deserve better education—and better reform

December 7, 2011, 12:00 am

When it comes to public education, New Mexico’s current reform efforts are dangerously misguided. The optimistic tagline of the New Mexico Public Education Department’s new reform initiative—“Kids First, New Mexico Wins”—is disingenuous on several levels. The PED is merely recycling the same old George W Bush-era program of high-stakes testing as a measure of student achievement and school success, and presenting this tired system as “bold, visionary reform.” It’s not bold, and it’s not even really reform. The only significant change is this: The deck will be stacked even more against most of the students in New Mexico.


Here’s what you need to know about this plan. The state has implemented a system of evaluation that measures individual schools on an A-F grading scale uses students’ academic performance to determine their teachers’ effectiveness. At face value, this system—evaluating teachers and schools based on student achievement—sounds reasonable. So far, “student achievement” remains largely undefined, though it seems likely that a key factor will continue to be performance on a series of standardized tests, including the New Mexico Standards Based Assessment, the statewide test used to determine performance under the No Child Left Behind Act.


The problem with such metrics is that testing success is a clearer indicator of socioeconomic status than of academic interest or dedication. A quick look at Santa Fe Public Schools’ 2011 test results shows that the proficiency rates at schools plummet as the percentage of “economically disadvantaged” students grows. The anecdotal evidence is equally powerful. Talk to any teacher who serves children in poverty, and you’ll get a feel for how daunting it is to raise test scores. This phenomenon is not unique to New Mexico—No Child Left Behind has failed spectacularly in every state—but it’s certainly exacerbated here. We live in one of the poorest states in the country.


The greater the pressure to perform on the tests, the fewer opportunities students have to experience what makes school and learning joyful for children.



To understand why poor children lose in a system of high-stakes testing, imagine a classroom at a school in danger of failing test-score benchmarks. At this school, the teacher and the students, burdened with low test scores, do not have the luxuries of field trips, projects and allowing children’s wonder to drive instruction. Instead, data drive instruction, and kids spend their time learning to take tests, to conform and to fear failure.


A system that amplifies this fear of failure by basing all notions of academic success on a standardized measure that these kids aren’t reaching will only intensify this dynamic. The greater the pressure to perform on the tests, the fewer opportunities students have to experience what makes school and learning joyful for children. 


This style of teaching is called the “pedagogy of poverty” because it so closely resembles classrooms in poor communities straddled with the impossible task of closing the achievement gap. Ratcheting up the pressure, as the PED’s plan will, can only exaggerate these conditions by encouraging—no, mandating—teaching to the test. 


Is this what New Mexican children deserve? No. But it is what they’re going to get under this plan. Schools and teachers will work for the success and safety of their students no matter which system is imposed on them. Unfortunately, those schools and teachers that work with impoverished children have so much more to push against—yet are also the ones who are in highest danger of being branded as failures.


Real reform in this state will mean shifting our concept of student achievement away from test scores and making a greater effort to understand the complex populations of children who attend our public schools. The PED’s new plan states, “We know that New Mexico’s students can achieve and compete with the best and the brightest in the nation.” This statement is at best blindly optimistic. 


A few facts to chew on: Test proficiency in New Mexico has declined dramatically over the last five years, to the point that 86 percent of our schools—86 percent!—were deemed not proficient last year. We cannot expect that the children of New Mexico will suddenly overcome the challenges that the system currently imposes on them. Simply requiring that students who struggle on standardized tests do better on those same tests is unreasonable, unfair and about as farsighted as suggesting that cutting all taxes can eliminate the national deficit. 


Why invest our state’s extremely limited resources in “reform” that doesn’t change much?


New Mexico can develop a school and teacher report card that relies minimally on test scores, and instead enlarges our concept of achievement to greater encompass the important values and skills that good schools teach children. An authentic report card could contain observational records, a ranked list of the services schools provide and anecdotal parent and student input—to name a few—all while keeping in mind the background of the families each school and teacher serves. The task would be complex and time-consuming, but it would be a start to truly helping New Mexico win.

Allegra Love teaches in Santa Fe Public Schools.

 

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