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Missing Measurements

Pandemic-driven testing disruptions further obscure New Mexico’s progress toward educating vulnerable children

For Mary Parr-Sanchez, who taught history in middle schools for 25 years, standardized testing is a crucial measurement tool.

But like other educators, the president of New Mexico’s chapter of the National Education Association believes the state has leaned too heavily on test scores.

“We have just gotten over the top with pigeon-holing our students with just two measurements: a reading score and a math score,” Parr-Sanchez tells SFR.

There have been advancements over the decades, with educators developing numerous alternatives to high-stakes testing as a way to pinpoint advancement which broaden the ways in which students’ can demonstrate knowledge.

But old-school standardized testing remains firmly in place as a primary tool for measuring student success at both the state and federal levels.

And in New Mexico, standardized testing has, perhaps inadvertently, played a pivotal role in identifying the inequities in public schooling. In recent years, the measurement tool has seen major disruptions and changes, which have made tracking student progress—particularly for “at-risk” children—much more difficult.

In the seminal 2018 Martinez and Yazzie v. State of New Mexico court ruling, the late-District Court Judge Sarah Singleton indicted the state officials’ lack of sufficient educational inputs to adequately prepare students for careers and college. Singleton seized on standardized test scores to support her conclusions, pointing to a litany of poor results on the Standards Based Assessment (SBA) and Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests, two of New Mexico’s formerly preferred tools used to test kids’ math and reading skills.

New Mexico has long struggled with low test scores across the board. But for students identified as at-risk—English-language learners, children living in low-income homes, those receiving special education services and Native youths—the outcomes “are much worse,” Singleton’s order reads.

The longtime judge cited statistics in her ruling that showed just 17.6% and 4.3% of Native students and English-language learners, respectively, achieved proficiency in reading. The results for those student populations in math were similarly dismal.

Where do those rates stand today? And have more recent state efforts to comply with the mandates of the Yazzie/Martinez ruling, as it’s known, met the mark? Those are elusive questions, and that’s because the data is unreliable, SFR has found.

Former Gov. Susana Martinez remained steadfastly committed to using PARCC—which replaced SBA in 2015—as her chief measuring stick for both teacher and student success during her eight years in office, despite a near-unanimous uproar from the education community.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham axed PARCC when she took office in 2019, appointed a Public Education Department task force, and settled on a new standardized exam: the New Mexico Measures of Student Success and Achievement (MSSA) test.

The revolving door of high-stakes exams—so called because their outcomes were tied to student advancement—has drawn scrutiny from the Legislative Finance Committee.

“To ensure accurate comparisons of academic performance over time, New Mexico should consider maintaining the same assessment over a longer period,” reads the most recent policy and performance analysis from the interim legislative committee.

Inconsistency hasn’t been the only disruption to the state’s testing scheme.

When COVID-19 hit New Mexico in March 2020, the state received a waiver to forgo all federally mandated standardized testing for the 2019-20 school year. The following year, the education department received an accountability waiver, which pardoned the state from having to test 95% of all students, which is typically required of state education agencies. Instead PED attempted to test New Mexico students to “the greatest extent possible” given last school year’s learning conditions, which worked out to far fewer students.

Gwen Perea Warniment, deputy secretary of teaching, learning and assessment at PED, explains that district- and school-level data is important to track the progress of at-risk students—but more is needed.

“Are they getting their needs met?” Warniment asks. “We need to have that statewide approach to data.”

The pandemic has been an “added challenge,” PED Secretary Kurt Steinhaus said in an interview last month. To stay on pace, the education department has asked districts and charter schools to conduct interim assessments—shorter tests taken three times throughout the year—to track students’ progress.

Unsurprisingly, remote learning didn’t produce better outcomes for students who took the interim tests.

PED assessed about 14,800 students between third and eighth grades last year—roughly one in 10 of New Mexico students in those grades. A study of interim assessments found the number of students proficient in reading dropped 3% and decreased 8% for math.

Warniment hesitates to extrapolate from those declines, given the small sample size. She says teasing apart the data to look at impacts on specific at-risk student populations isn’t possible, which leaves the department partially in the dark.

“There is a question that’s lingering out there for all of us and most importantly, for our parents around, ‘Where are my students?’” Warniment says, adding that the answer lies not in high-stakes testing, but rather in short-term, weekly assessment in the classroom to monitor students’ success.

The Legislative Education Study Committee has similarly identified the challenges of the current situation.

“With 2019 data the most recent available, school leadership has no way to assess the impact of new programs or the interruption of pandemic-related closures,” reads this year’s report to the Legislature.

Back over at the LFC, which advises the Legislature’s purse strings, the lack of accountable results has left the Legislature with few options. And without the data that informs policy makers’ decisions, “the Legislature has just leaned on what has previously been found to be effective, which has been the K-5 Plus program despite the low participation rates,” Sunny Liu, a public schools analyst with the LFC, tells SFR.

Just 11% of the state’s districts and charter schools opted to participate in the K-5 Plus program, which adds 25 school days to the calendar, this year. That’s a slight increase from 2020-21, when about 9% participated.Teacher burnout has kept participation low, Warniment says.

“Twenty five days when you’re already exhausted, seems untenable,” she tells SFR, adding that “better systems of support for educators” are needed.

Last week SFR examined the state’s compliance with the 2018 lawsuit Martinez and Yazzie v. State of New Mexico, and what lies ahead. Future stories in this series, exploring education and equity in the state, will continue unpacking the case and what’s still missing.

March 16 - New Mexico’s legacy to make better teachers

March 23 - Students remain disconnected, despite the new, virtual face of education

March 30 - Funding shifts for at-risk children

April 6 - Language education shapes or denies students

This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.

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