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School grades reveal ‘a growing disparity’ in NM education

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico is seeing an increasing divide in the educational performance of its school districts, according to new statewide school grades released Tuesday.

While districts like Farmington, Gadsden and Alamogordo no longer have any failing schools, 34 percent of Albuquerque’s schools received an F in the latest state report.

“There is a growing disparity,” said acting secretary of education Christopher Ruszkowski.

In 2016, 25 percent of Albuquerque schools received failing grades. And in 2012, when the Public Education Department launched school grades, just 11 percent of APS schools earned F’s.

The new report awarded A grades to 9 percent of the district’s schools.

Albuquerque Public Schools is also home to two elementary schools that have received six straight failing grades — the worst performance in the state.

Across the state, 16 percent of public schools received failing grades, up from 13 percent in 2016. The number of A rated schools held steady at 14 percent.

Overall, 127,882 New Mexico students attend an A or B rated school today — roughly 32,000 more than in 2012. But the group in D and F schools is nearly as large — 115,899 students. Statewide, 88,397 students attend C schools.

Ruszkowski said some districts are rising to meet demands and others are not.

Successful districts like Gadsden and Farmington are data-driven and believe that every child can learn, Ruszkowski said.

“Demographics is not destiny in Gadsden,” Ruszkowski said about the school district that straddles the Mexico border and is headquartered in Sunland Park. The district’s student population includes children who live in Mexico and walk across the border to attend school, he said.

Gov. Susana Martinez agreed that schools with strong participation in state reform programs are on the rise, “while those that refuse to make improvements for our kids continue to struggle.”

Ruszkowski said that results in APS show it suffers from an “aversion to quantitative measurement” of student performance. He compared the district’s attitude to a doctor who won’t take a child’s temperature or blood pressure because the process is too uncomfortable.

He called on APS leadership to meet with leaders of charter schools and other districts that have seen better success with their school grades.

Across New Mexico’s 15 largest districts, nine have seen improvement.

— Rio Rancho held steady with 28 percent of schools getting an A in 2016 and 2017. Over the past year, the district increased its B schools from 28 percent to 44 percent while reducing C’s and D’s. No Rio Rancho district school has ever received an F.

— Santa Fe had a mixed picture. F grades climbed from 17 percent in 2016 to 23 percent in 2017, while A’s dropped from 17 percent to 13 percent. B’s had a dramatic boost — 7 percent in 2016 and 23 percent in 2017.

— Las Cruces had a steady decline in A’s over the past year — 23 percent down to 10 percent. B’s climbed from 23 percent to 28 percent. F’s rose from 10 percent to 13 percent.

The Public Education Department has shifted the grading criteria over the years to weigh academic proficiency more heavily — bumping it up from 15 percent of the grade in 2015 to 25 percent today for elementary and middle schools. In 2019, proficiency will make up 33 percent of a school’s grade.

The calculations for high schools include an additional college and career readiness metric based on measures like results form the SAT and ACT tests and graduation rates. In 2015, academic proficiency made up 10 percent of the high school grade. This year that weight is 20 percent. In 2019, academic proficiency will make up 25 percent of the high school grade.

APS Superintendent Raquel Reedy said her district has a plan to improve.

She cited budgetary and personnel changes, a new approach that divides APS into four “Learning Zones” for personalized instruction and student-focused priorities outlined in the five-year academic master plan.

Test opt-outs a factor

APS has an extra complication that most districts did not face this year: 19 of its schools did not meet the required 95-percent student participation rate for standardized testing.

As a result, those schools dropped a letter grade.

Outside APS, only four schools were below the threshold this year — one in Santa Fe, one in Las Cruces and two state charter schools.

The test “opt-out” movement became a force in 2015 when PED introduced the controversial Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test.

APS is the only district that is still struggling with test participation, Ruszkowski said.

“The participation penalty should be a thing of the past at this juncture,” he said. “We understand that assessment is a civil rights issue, that every kid deserves access to the assessment. The rest of the state is on board with that.”

Ruszkowski said APS’ online “opt-out kit” — testing information distributed at parents’ request — is not in line with administrators’ emphasis on “equity and access” for all students.

PED could soon take more drastic steps in dealing with schools that don’t improve on their state evaluations.

Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, states have more leeway to address low-performing schools.

New Mexico’s ESSA plan outlines a number of options for these schools, including outright closure and “restarting” them as charters.

Charles Goodmacher, National Education Association of New Mexico spokesman, was critical of the state’s school grade system.

“Parents and the community should know the grades assigned to their local school are more of a reflection on a particular set of policy wonk ideas which reduce the many intangibles of education to a single letter score, than it is about what is actually happening in their schools,” he said in an emailed statement.