Principal Justin Hunter walks the halls of Francis X. Nava Elementary School, spreading cheer to students as they start their days.
“There’s not a single student that walks by in the morning and they’re not greeted first thing by myself with a smile, handshake or what-have-you,” he tells SFR. “I’m on a first name basis with the kids—though some of them are surprised to learn I have a first name—but it’s a very good relationship.”
Nava Elementary has one of the smallest populations in Santa Fe Public Schools, with 186 students enrolled at the Bellamah neighborhood school for the 2023-2024 school year. Hunter, now in his third year as principal, describes the school as a tight-knit community where “everybody knows everybody, in a very positive way.”
This convivial environment, however, does not translate in the Public Education Department’s student achievement data.
Test scores issued in the fall ranked Nava unusually low compared to the state averages. Only 17% of its students received proficient reading results, and just 11% obtained similarly qualifying math results.
“I think that we’re always looking to improve,” Hunter says. “My thoughts on test scores are that test scores are a simple snapshot in time, and they don’t always necessarily tell the whole story.”
State education officials feel differently. PED Secretary Arsenio Romero says statewide reading and math proficiency rates for the 2022-2023 school year—38% and 24%, respectively—are “way too low.” He told school districts this and more in a critical letter on Nov. 16.
While math competency statewide declined 1% since last year, reading increased by 4%. But even this gain hasn’t stopped New Mexico from landing last on the state education report card issued by the National Center of Education Statistics.
“We don’t have enough students graduating, we don’t have enough students proficient in math or reading and we don’t have enough students coming to school on a regular basis,” Romero tells SFR. “Our Legislature, our governor has given over $1 billion over the last year in new monies for education, and there has been little to no return of investment.”
Romero believes the only way to see “dramatic, positive improvement” anytime soon is with equally dramatic changes, which include a controversial policy proposal requiring 180-day minimum school years and increased accountability for schools failing to produce better results, to name a few.
When it comes to evaluating public schools, the state is still ironing out the kinks to recent changes.
Beginning in the 2021-2022 school year, the state switched to a different testing tool. The annual New Mexico Measures of Student Success and Achievement replaced the previously-administered PARCC for grades three through eight in English language arts and math. Students in fifth, eighth and 11th grades now also take a science test and 11th graders also take the SAT.
Results from those tests weren’t released to the public until last June—nearly a year later than expected. The newest year’s results from spring exams also came out months later than promised, and left some educators with more questions than answers.
Romero acknowledges the state’s failure to publicly release the data by its usual due date between August and September and says he’s working toward a Sept. 1 release for next year.
Multiple problems caused the delay this year, he says: the state had to play catch-up by releasing two years’ worth of data sets within one year following the pandemic’s shutdown of state assessments; and it also navigated a big transition in PED leadership, including Romero himself stepping into the secretary position this March.
But NewMexicoKidsCAN Executive Director Amanda Aragon, who studies statewide education issues as part of her daily work with policy organization, found the new presentation of data confusing and unreliable.
“If New Mexico is going to make improvements in education, the data has to be clear, it has to be easy to find, it has to be easy to understand and it needs to come out before the beginning of the school year,” she tells SFR. “The department really missed the mark on every one of those aspects this year.”
Even after the PED began to release data in late October, district officials didn’t have the whole picture. For instance, SFPS Superintendent Hilario “Larry” Chavez praised gains in a Nov. 2 announcement reporting 38% and 23% proficiency rates for math and reading in the 2022-2023 test results, expressing in a statement pride in students and educators “for accomplishing strong growth in proficiency. These data reflect student performance one year after our new leadership team began drilling into our new initiatives. It’s exciting that after one year we’re consistently showing upward progress.”
But by Nov. 9, when the SFPS Board of Education was set to hear a presentation on the scores, the PED had embargoed district-wide data over concerns about potential errors. The presentation has yet to be rescheduled.
PED spokesman Nate Williams tells SFR the department stands behind the 2023 individual school data (posted on NMvistas.org and in the chart on the previous page), but district-wide numbers are “undergoing a final review” due to issues with test participation rates, and he expects the embargo to end before February begins.
The district’s reported rates for math might be at issue: A raw average of each school’s math rates posted online by the PED comes to 24.1, while SFPS District spokesman Cody Dynarksi says the district information shows the average is 23.
Those factors add to Aragon’s doubts about statewide reporting accuracy this year. The statewide improvement in reading, for example, does not present a meaningful comparison because the data does not include the same tests for both years. The 2022 assessment data includes reading scores for 11th-grade students taking the SAT that year, but the 2023 data only measures K-8 student scores.
“The growth is probably less than the 4%, because we really struggle on the 11th-grade SAT. Had we included that group of students, it would have brought down the average a little bit,” Aragon says. “But I still think we improved; I just don’t think the 4% being reported is accurate. I think [PED] made it clear that there are challenges in the department that made it tough for them to get the data out, and it needs to be fixed.”
While lauding PED’s effort to increase accountability measures in the department, she says the website for viewing state assessment results is neither easy to navigate nor understand. Furthermore, it does not include district-level scores.
Aragon says the former method of measuring school success, grading schools on an A-F scale, was much more accessible.
“Now, there’s no letter grade, just federal designations. Those are terms I think don’t make sense to families,” she says. “Santa Fe High’s NM Vistas Score is 61. What does that mean? If I know for sure it’s out of 100, I see 61 and say, ‘That’s failing,’ because I’m converting it to a grade. But then, you learn the average score for New Mexico is . You only know that if I tell you what the median is. And then you see the designation: ATSI. That doesn’t mean anything to anyone.”
NewMexicoKidsCAN created a one-page explainer for NM Vista’s seven school designations. Three designations range from good to neutral: “excellence” and “spotlight” schools highlighting the state’s top-performing 10% and 25% of schools and “traditional support schools” for schools that have not been identified as needing extra support or improvement.
The remaining four designations (Targeted Support & Improvement; Additional Targeted Support & Improvement; Comprehensive Support & Improvement; and More Rigorous Interventions) describe increasing degrees of needed support or improvement for lower-performing schools.
But lower proficiency rates and low NM Vistas scores don’t necessarily correlate to the state’s designations. Despite receiving some of the lowest rates in SFPS and receiving an NM Vistas score of 31 this year and 19 last year, Nava Elementary has been designated as a traditional support school both years, with no need for additional funds or targeted improvement. Santa Fe High School, with a score of 61, was designated an ATSI school.
Sweeney Elementary School, the lowest-performing elementary school in Santa Fe, received a “comprehensive support and improvement” designation (the second-lowest possible) with an NM Vistas score of 26.
When comparing Sweeney to other elementary schools in the district, a trend emerges: the majority of schools in the downtown and northeastern areas of Santa Fe consistently earn sky-high test scores on standardized tests, while schools in the Southside and Midtown districts show low performance. Aragon notes she worries a statewide lack of accountability allows these gaps to grow.
“I think it’s a bigger problem in places like Santa Fe, and I think Albuquerque falls into this category too, where you see big disparities in wealth,” Aragon says. “We have a system of education that says you attend school based on where you live. So, the dynamics of concentrated poverty play out in our schools, and I think some people see that as a reason that our scores are bad.”
Wood-Gormley Elementary School, as an example, stands at the complete opposite end of the state-test spectrum of schools like Nava and Sweeney, boasting 81% reading and 57% math proficiency rates.
Wood-Gormley Principal Karen Lindeen tells SFR the rates for the school in the South Capitol neighborhood strikes her as “pretty significant compared to the rest of the state and the district,” noting 16 SFPS schools failed to clear the state average reading scores.
“I really attribute it to our teachers,” Lindeen says. She notes the school’s “inclusive and student-centered” learning environment, with a low turnover of mostly experienced Level 2 or 3 teachers staffing the school as potential reasons for higher student achievement.
Regardless of stark differences in test scores, Wood-Gormley’s reading program and specialists who help struggling students are the same as the rest of the district’s schools.
“I don’t think there’s one reading program that keeps our scores where they are,” Lindeen says. “It’s a whole-school effort, with the teachers at the center, the support the administration gives them and our parent community’s support as well.”
To Aragon, a high percentage of low-income students within a school does not equal chronically low test results, and she notes schools in the state that defy this idea: Anthony Elementary from Gadsden Independent School District and the Albuquerque School of Excellence received above-average rates, and both have high numbers of disadvantaged students.
“We know, because there are examples across the country and even within our state that we can still get tremendous outcomes for kids living in poverty, English learners and special education students,” Aragon says. “It’s just that we need to hold schools and districts accountable for those results, and that’s the part that’s been missing.”
In the upcoming school years, Romero says he plans to do just that, citing the state’s commitment to increase funding and support for disadvantaged students following the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit, including low-income, Hispanic, Black and Indigenous students.
“We need to be able to adequately fund underperforming student groups, student groups that struggle with inequality,” Romero says. “It’s not just what happens in school. All of that can be a big part of the factor, but we’re all responsible for the success of our students. That includes families, our city, our county, our state.”
Other improvements to public education Romero wants to focus on include: structured literacy programs to improve reading outcomes; teaching career pipelines at universities; revamping special education outcomes; stronger STEM and career and technical education programs and higher student attendance rates. Structured literacy, he says, is one of his top priorities, and one that worked for other states.
“Mississippi went from last place to 32nd [in the US]. They had a very structured plan; it took them about a decade to get there. One of the tools they used was structured literacy,” Romero says. “But, I don’t want to take a decade, because every year it takes us to be able to get there, that’s another cohort of students that are going to continue to be behind when it comes to being proficient readers.”
Romero has asked legislators for $4.4 billion on behalf of PED for next fiscal year’s general fund, including to support a plan to use $30 million for statewide student reading interventions, with half of those funds going to professional development focused on the science of reading and instructional materials in elementary schools. Gov. Michelle Lujan-Grisham’s FY25 budget recommendations include $58.1 million in education funding dedicated specifically to structured literacy.
Aragon plans to advocate for improved literacy programs as well. At the state’s most recent Legislative Education Study Meeting on Dec. 14, she proposed plans to help improve student reading outcomes, including: personalized reading plans; auditing and publicly publishing literacy teaching materials; and holding back third-grade students who don’t obtain the reading scores needed.
Education administrators’ responses to state assessment results travel all the way down to the school level. Hunter, for example, has begun a motivational system in his school’s reading program, Nava Kwondo, awarding students with different-colored belts akin to tae kwon do for learning the Fry Word List of the 1,000 most-common English words.
“If you teach students these words by third grade, they should be able to read the tests with fluency and comprehension,” Hunter explains. “I came on board at Nava after the pandemic, so I don’t have the same institutional knowledge the principals that had been with this school prior to the pandemic had. I only know what I inherited, and what I’m looking to do with what I’ve been given.”