Trauma-informed teaching in an era of standardized testing

An educator’s perspective on a bigger conversation about student achievement

(Anson Stevens-Bollen)

The first day back after winter break, 30 teachers at Amy Biehl Community School were welcomed with a two-hour workshop on trauma-informed schooling.

“Pictures of puppies and kittens help,” Mikahla Beutler, licensed professional clinical counselor, said to cheer us up after we viewed the statistics of the devastating effects of childhood trauma on people, both physically and mentally.

As a teacher for the past decade, understanding that my students have trauma is nothing new. I see the ways in which they process their experiences with violent outbursts, silent withdrawal periods, as well as what teachers refer to as “defiance.” What I notice in the classroom is reflected in the data about New Mexico kids. There are many connections between high levels of poverty, childhood trauma and how that affects children academically.

The recent article “Keeping Score” (Cover, Jan. 10) attempted to begin a conversation about our city’s education issues by looking at recently released data on state standardized test scores.

You can’t have a conversation about test scores without talking about the way demographics, poverty and trauma affect a child’s ability to learn.

A 2022 study linked high rates of Adverse Childhood Experiences in children to higher rates of poor academic performance and poor health, noting in a nationally representative sample, children with higher ACE exposure were less likely to be engaged in school and more likely to repeat a grade.

According to the New Mexico Department of Health, New Mexico children have the highest rates of ACEs in the nation. One in seven New Mexico children have experienced three or more ACEs. Our state’s standing as the 49th in education is intrinsically connected to the high number of childhood traumas our students are dealing with, along with the searingly high rate of childhood poverty of 25%.

A study published out of Princeton University in 2021 shows that living in a neighborhood with elevated levels of poverty is associated with a high likelihood of experiencing four or more ACEs. In addition, there is a correlation between race and a higher rate of ACEs, much in the ways that poverty and race intersect. According to research done nationally, “51% of Hispanic children have experienced at least one ACE, compared with 40% of white non-Hispanic children” (childtrends.org). Institutional racism is a longer conversation.

It’s not so difficult to see these realities reflected in the city of Santa Fe as well.

Looking at the map included in the article, it is apparent how income is tied to academic performance and test scores. Out of the six schools deemed “excellent,” five are on the east side of town where housing prices and income levels soar in comparison to the Southside of town. It was disappointing that such an obvious correlation was not unpacked when discussing the outcomes of our students across the district.

We see that our city’s education system is divided along income and racial lines by looking more closely at demographic data, found on the SFPS website. Wood Gormley, the top performing school in the district, has a student body that is 64% white and 36% Hispanic. In addition, only 6% of their students are English Language Learners, while 15% of their students are in the gifted program.

Sweeney Elementary School, the lowest performing school in the district, has 65% of their students designated as English Language Learners, and only 3% of their students are in the gifted program. 4% of their students are white while 96% are Hispanic. It is also a Title 1 school and 100% of the students receive free and reduced lunch.

As a community, we need to discuss the segregation of students in our city and focus on a solution to create an equitable education system for our children. We must invest our resources to fight the system of poverty and poverty-induced trauma in order to provide equal education for all of Santa Fe’s children.

Instead of speaking of more methods of accountability, we instead should turn to programs like Communities In Schools, that work to provide wrap-around services for students and their families including food access, housing security and other resources. These are all well-documented ways to help reduce childhood trauma.

Instead of increasing testing in an era where we already have the most standardized testing days than ever before, we should be improving student access to counseling and social work, important work that is already being supported by organizations like The Sky Center, The Mountain Center and PMS which offer counseling services to children and their families.

An additional way to help our children is to work to reduce Adverse Childhood Experiences by working with families of children under 5. Investing money in home-visits, parenting classes and other early-childhood programs could help reduce early trauma by connecting families to resources early-on.

In a city with so many resources, we should see these disparate test results as a call to action to help the children of Santa Fe by creating a more equitable education system.

Aviva Markowitz has been a teacher at Amy Biehl Community School for 10 years. She received her Masters in Education in Language, Literacy and Sociocultural Studies from the University of New Mexico in 2021. She serves as the SFPS District Family Engagement Coordinator and she is on the leadership team for Community Schools at Amy Biehl.

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