Not Done Yet

As New Mexico's Public Education Department promises new science standards, it quietly guts history and health requirements

In a stunning rewrite of classroom learning measurements, New Mexico's Public Education Department has deleted required teaching on landmark civil rights events, Roe v. Wade, immunization benefits, the dropping of atomic bombs during World War II and the process for impeaching state officials.

The department hoped to welcome less biting news after pulling an about-face Wednesday night on a plan to gut science education standards for New Mexico students.

In recent weeks, parents, educators, scientists and activists have attacked the PED's plan to pull mentions of climate change, evolution and the age of the Earth from the Next Generation Science Standards.

With the newly discovered revisions to required learning in history and health, the battle against changes that cut against established learning principles may now become a guerrilla war in the halls of New Mexico schools.

The changes come in the form of revisions to end-of-course assessments. The state suggests the assessments as final examinations, though districts aren't required to use them verbatim. However, the EOCs, as they're called, are used to measure student success for teacher evaluations and in some cases, serve as alternative measures to determine graduation rates, which can impact school grades.

The department's published requirements for US history courses have stricken a host of measures, including knowledge of Rosa Parks and Malcolm X, as well as the seminal reproductive rights case, Roe v. Wade. Gone are measurements of students' knowledge of trusts and trust busting, the role of banks in the Great Depression, and many requirements for knowledge from the Progressive Era.

Similar assessments for New Mexico history classes stop measuring understanding of nuclear weapons and the Cold War arms race. They delete required knowledge of the impeachment process in the state, study of the executive branch and its powers and even basic knowledge of how a bill becomes a law.

World history requirements no longer include the demise of slavery as a part of the Industrial Revolution. Taiwan's split from China and Egyptian unrest are also not required learning.

In a state with a widely publicized diabetes problem, end-of-course measurements in health classes delete references to nutrition, healthy food choices and alcohol abuse. Knowledge of emotional and physical changes during puberty will no longer be required learning. Nor will students be asked to learn about immunizations.

Education Secretary Designate Christopher Ruszkowski, who announced his science decision Wednesday, was quoted saying "what gets measured, gets done." The implications of that maxim for history and health teaching in New Mexico classrooms are profound.

State Rep. G Andrés Romero, a social studies teacher at Atrisco Heritage Academy high school and Democrat from Albuquerque, bemoaned the changes to history assessments during a Thursday morning meeting of the Legislative Education Study Committee. He asked colleagues whether the PED has been forthcoming in disclosing who has driven the changes to  science and other standards—behind the scenes—for New Mexico public school students.

Romero said he had hoped to ask Ruszkowski that question. The secretary designate was an invited guest at Thursday's hearing, but did not appear.

Ruszkowski hadn't shown to face an overflow crowd of angry New Mexicans about the science standards, either.

"I'm ever the optimist and was hoping that he would be here," Romero said.

There were audible gasps from the committee and the audience as Romero read through some of the new omissions from the history assessments schools will be expected to use to test students on their learning.

"They say teachers are free to teach the rest," Romero told SFR, "but at the end of the day when you have high-stakes teacher evaluations that take into account student scores on these tests, what standards are going to be prioritized?"

End of course assessments don't draw the level of scrutiny that standards do. They tell teachers what will be evaluated at the end of the course, though, and thus influence what's most likely to be taught. Education experts say it's an under-the-radar approach to changing what students learn that places the onus on teachers and school districts to include controversial exclusions. By allowing classroom instruction on topics that won't be measured, the department can absolve itself of criticism that it has outlawed teaching, while knowing it's far less likely to be taught in the test-driven classrooms of modern-day education.

"What Rep. Romero and his colleagues at his high school in Albuquerque were doing is what districts all over the state do," National Education Association spokesman Charles Goodmacher told SFR after the hearing. "They double-check to make sure that what's being measured by the state is what they're teaching in the classroom."

Lida Alikhani, PED spokeswoman, and Larry Behrens, communications director for Gov. Susana Martinez, did not respond to an inquiry about the new assessments. They also have not responded to repeated requests by SFR to interview Ruszkowski, who made the media rounds by telephone Wednesday night as he reportedly touted his willingness to talk with the community about the science standards.

After SFR published this story, Alikhani emailed a statement regarding the assessments, but would not answer questions or provide any PED staff to do so. She once again refused to acknowledge SFR's request to interview Ruszkowski.

Alikhani said certain subjects have been removed from EOCs for two primary reasons. In the first instance, she said the subject is already covered in one of two ways—in a different assessment or in a different way in the same assessment. As an example, she claimed that while the requirement for students to know about the significance of dropping atomic bombs on Japan has been stricken from US history assessments, the Manhattan Project's inclusion in a New Mexico history assessment means students will be tested on that knowledge.

In the second instance, Alikhani said that the department rotates topics it assesses because it's too difficult to test for every topic every year. While Roe v. Wade is excluded from the important court cases assessed this year, she indicated there is a possibility it would be included again next year.

Ruszkowski's decision to abandon some three dozen proposed changes to the Next Generation Science Standards in favor of what the department promised would be a full adoption of the NGSS came as a surprise to many in the education community.

Lesley Galyas, the former director of the PED's Math and Science Bureau who raised concerns about what she termed the political sanitizing of the NGSS, told SFR she was in tears when she learned of the department's decision.

"I think we're all tired of fighting," Galyas said of the years-long pursuit of new science standards.

While Ruszkowski told the Albuquerque Journal that "every day that this goes on is one day less we can get ready for implementation," the reality is that the standards have been ready to adopt in their entirety for more than four years. Galyas said she had concerns about the state being among the first to adopt the Next Gen standards, but even a cautious approach would have meant rolling out the NGSS two years ago.

"That's two years of wasted time. We should have already been teaching them," Galyas told SFR Thursday morning. She said she cringed when she read Ruszkowski's remarks about urgency.

"It's a huge victory," she said. "The next hurdle is the implementation."

Science education experts told the legislative committee they were hopeful that when the department said it planned to implement the Next Gen standards in their entirety, it meant adopting the underlying framework rather than just the top-level learning requirements.

"There was quite a bit of upheaval [in the science education community] because the rest of this document was missing," Gwen Perea Warniment, a science content specialist with the LANL Foundation, told the panel Thursday. The foundation has been working with a group of Northern New Mexico schools to co-teach the NGSS alongside existing science standards.

Advocates say the science and engineering practices, disciplinary core ideas and crosscutting concepts that underpin the Next Gen standards are key to its success. Concepts are drawn out from kindergarten through 12th grade, as well as across disciplines. They tie in to the Common Core Standards by which New Mexico students are measured in math and English language learning.

Rolling out such broad revisions takes time, experts say. Warniment said a four-year implementation would be ideal as teachers and students learn what's expected and in some ways adjust to a different style of teaching science.

"There is some difficulty with teachers being able to let go and allow students to have a productive struggle," Warniment told lawmakers.

The department also said it would include six New Mexico-specific standards in addition to the Next Gen requirements.

In elementary schools, students will be asked to "obtain information about how New Mexico men and women of all ethnic and social backgrounds have worked together to advance science and technology" and describe state-specific improvements to technology and to society through scientific applications.

In middle school, students must be able to describe the pluses and minuses of local industries, including energy production.

In the high school years, students will have to find a local issue that demonstrates costs and benefits of human activities such as water reclamation projects and habitat restoration. They'll need to discuss the role of New Mexico's national laboratories and "construct an argument using claims, scientific evidence and reasoning that helps decision makers with a New Mexico challenge or opportunity."

The department has not published the new standards as explained by Ruszkowski.

This story has been updated to clarify that end-of-course assessments can indirectly affect school grades through graduation rates, and to include a response from the PED.

Letters to the Editor

Mail letters to PO Box 4910 Santa Fe, NM 87502 or email them to editor[at] Letters (no more than 200 words) should refer to specific articles in the Reporter. Letters will be edited for space and clarity.

We also welcome you to follow SFR on social media (on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) and comment there. You can also email specific staff members from our contact page.