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Tough exam puts NM school districts in funding bind

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico students learning English as a second language are struggling to pass a tougher proficiency exam, which is creating budget challenges for districts, according to some administrators.

WIDA, a Wisconsin-based company, recently revamped the scoring system for the ACCESS assessment, which is used by New Mexico, and 38 other states and agencies to test English language learners.

Under the new system, it is much more difficult to earn a high score.

The change has impacted districts across the state.

Albuquerque Public Schools reported that roughly 16 percent of its ELL students met proficiency on the ACCESS test during the 2015-16 school year — about 2,200 children — but last year the rate fell to about 1 percent — 131 children out of roughly 10,000 in total.

The state’s funding formula appropriates extra money for ELL students to pay for services, but the per-pupil funding was calculated before the latest ACCESS test results came back in May.

That means the 2017-18 allocations will not account for the larger number of children who will need ELL services, which include daily instruction in English and the student’s home language, if available.

In Santa Fe Public Schools, the ACCESS pass rate declined from 15 percent to less than 1 percent, adding up to 345 more English language learners in the upcoming school year than administrators expected.

New Mexico has one of the nation’s highest rates of children enrolled in bilingual programs — 15 percent, or 52,365 in total, according to PED data from the 2015-16 school year.

PED says just about all New Mexico districts have seen their ACCESS pass rates fall to about 1 percent, though it does not have exact numbers.

Other states have responded by reducing the score required to test out of ELL status, but New Mexico did not.

“Our students have proven to us that they will rise to the challenge when we set a high bar,” said Lida Alikhani, PED spokeswoman.

PED noted that districts get other federal funding to pay for ELL programs and questioned whether districts such as APS had fully tapped the money for that purpose.

APS disputed that and said it has budgeted its federal money for ELL programs.

APS chief of staff Richard Bowman told board members last week that he supports high standards, but money is needed to meet them.

“Essentially, for the ’17-18 school year, we will have an unfunded mandate where we will be providing services for 2,000 more students than we are actually getting funding from the state,” said Carrie Robin Brunder, APS director of government affairs and policy, during a June board committee meeting.

In the future, all students should by covered by state funding, but that also means the state will have to find money to help them for additional years as they study to meet the tougher ACCESS standards.

“While we have always been concerned with the lack of funding needed to support the needs of our English language learners, this presents yet another financial obstacle that we will work to overcome, including reaching out to our legislative delegation,” Veronica C. Garcia, Santa Fe Public Schools superintendent, said in an emailed statement.

Garcia said her district is closely analyzing the possible long-term impacts of the new ACCESS scoring system and developing an implementation plan to ensure all students are receiving necessary services.

APS is investing in teacher professional development and instructional materials districtwide to support ELL students, according to Jessica Villalobos, senior director of language and cultural equity.

WIDA also has worked closely with states to help them transition to the tougher scoring system.

“It’s a substantial change,” said H. Gary Cook, WIDA research director. “Everyone is getting used to the new numbers.”

Cook explained that WIDA decided to revamp the ACCESS scoring for the first time in over a decade to align with “career and college-ready standards.”