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New Mexico schools will now be evaluated under the state’s own A-F rating system instead of the federal system, even though the US Department of Education called it “vague” and “disjointed.”

Grade A—or F?

New Mexico is free of No Child Left Behind, but is the state’s plan any better?

February 22, 2012, 12:00 am

“Vague.” “Disjointed.” “Unlikely to improve student achievement.”

That’s how the US Department of Education described New Mexico’s education reform initiatives when it denied the state’s request to opt out of the federal school rating system.

But five days later, the New Mexico Public Education Department got its waiver after all. 

New Mexico schools will no longer be rated based on a system created under No Child Left Behind, the federal law enacted by former President George W Bush, which creates ever-advancing achievement standards for public elementary and secondary school kids. On the one hand, the waiver PED just earned—which is good through the end of the 2013-2014 school year—is a promising step. NCLB’s “Adequate Yearly Progress” evaluation system is widely acknowledged to be flawed, and it condemned a whopping 87 percent of the state’s schools as “failing” last school year.

But critics say the A-F school grading system, which has been the cornerstone of Education Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera’s education reform efforts, is just as flawed. New Mexico public school teachers and administrators—the same people who had been demanding a new school grading system for years—worry that the A-F system will be only marginally effective and say they’ve been left out of the process. The federally appointed peer panel that reviewed New Mexico’s waiver application substantiated many of local educators’ concerns—and the US DOE initially rejected the application as a result. New Mexico was the only one of 11 states that initially applied but didn’t make the cut. In 28 of 31 categories for which it rated New Mexico, the panel unanimously judged the PED’s new initiatives to be inadequate.

The A-F system was transplanted to New Mexico from Florida, where Skandera originally had success implementing it. But New Mexico Public Education Commissioner Jeff Carr tells SFR that Florida’s claims of improving achievement resulted from excluding some children from testing and holding many back a grade, artificially creating the impression that achievement improved.

New Mexico’s A-F system is supposed to be superior to the AYP scale partly because it measures improvement from year to year, rather than providing a static snapshot of a school’s standing. But the system is so vague that it’s not clear what schools need to do to improve: The panel notes that certain grades, such as “D/F,” sometimes signal the need for remediation at a school, and other times, inexplicably, indicate it no longer needs remediation. When school superintendents from around the state testified before the Senate Finance Committee about A-F during New Mexico’s 2012 legislative session, the system’s vagueness was one of their top complaints. 

“[A-F] was billed, when it was presented last year in the Legislature, as something that would be more easily understood by parents and educators,” Albuquerque Teachers Federation union President Ellen Bernstein says. “I think it was universally not understood—it was put together so poorly. The idea was, this was going to be better than AYP, which is a bad system; I’m not protecting that system. But the idea that A-F was more easily understood—that’s just not real. That’s not what happened.”

In fact, the PED continues to withhold the formula used to calculate the A-F grades doled out to the state’s schools earlier this year. 

“Mostly, so far, [A-F] has been kind of a black box,” Santa Fe Public Schools Board of Education Vice President Glenn Wikle says. “They’ve released about half of the information you would need to understand how they’re calculating it…so how are schools going to be able to work toward improving their scores?”

Because the A-F system is supposed to factor in schools’ improvement—and there are many different ways to do so—it’s particularly important that schools understand how it is calculated, Bernstein says. Under two different metrics, the same school can appear to be doing great or terribly, she notes.

“It’s the public institutions that are being judged by the formula,” Bernstein says. “The formula should not just be made public, but should be understood by the people being graded by it.”

PED spokesman Larry Behrens did not return a call for comment before press time.

PED has not only has failed to explain A-F to New Mexico’s educators, but also to acquire their input during its reform process, the panel alleges. The same complaint came up repeatedly in meetings over the past year, when teachers and administrators from around the state challenged the new administration’s reforms, including a plan to create a new teacher evaluation system. Bernstein says the PED only paid lip service to the idea of involving teachers.

“It’s something we’ve been really disappointed in,” Bernstein says. “Consultation was like, ‘Hey, I was in a room and so was Ellen, and our conversation didn’t go anywhere, but that equals consultation.’” 

Bernstein is not alone in that opinion. 

“I felt most of it was a farce anyway,” Carr says of the PED’s involvement of teachers in its reform process. “They were trying to push their own ideology on everyone anyway, things coming from Florida and other states.”

Other groups that didn’t get enough input and consideration, according to the panel: minorities, English language learners and special education kids.

Other decisions the administration has made similarly leave those subgroups out of the education-reform conversation. The PED has kept a vacancy in the key position for education of Native Americans in the state and disbanded several advisory committees designed to provide input on minority educational needs. 

After its waiver denial, PED said it would implement a new system of teacher evaluation; the waiver was then accepted, partly on that basis. But none of the bills that would have overhauled teacher evaluation passed this legislative session. A US DOE spokeswoman tells SFR that, since the legislation didn’t pass, the PED must develop teacher evaluation guidelines, negotiate them with districts and implement them by the 2014-2015 school year in order to meet the waiver requirements. There are no requirements for the state to pass legislation creating the evaluation system, the spokeswoman says.

The PED’s failure to adequately consult with the state’s educators lends credence to a recurring complaint about Skandera’s reforms. 

“I think the governor has been really clear that she was going to implement reforms from Florida,” Bernstein says. “Whether they make sense as stand-alones or whether they make sense for New Mexico schools doesn’t matter.”


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