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NM needs to expand use of pre-K, analysts say

From left, Kimberly C de Vaca, Andrea Esparza and Satya Rugsaken paint with watercolors at the United Way Early Learning Center at Aspen in Santa Fe in January

From left, Kimberly C de Vaca, Andrea Esparza and Satya Rugsaken paint with watercolors at the United Way Early Learning Center, a pre-K program, at Aspen in Santa Fe in January. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Students in New Mexico public schools generally make about a year’s worth of academic progress for each year they’re in school.

But many students are starting kindergarten behind their peers, so they actually need even more growth to catch up, according to a new report prepared by analysts for the Legislative Finance Committee.

Furthermore, the achievement gap – lower test scores for students from low-income families, for example – remains, the report says.

One potential solution, legislative analysts say in the report, is expanded use of pre-kindergarten programs that have a track record of success at raising students’ test scores. The benefits of pre-K persist through eighth grade, LFC program evaluator Sarah Dinces told lawmakers Friday.

And there are also “positive effects,” she said, for students who participate in both pre-K and a “K-3 Plus” program that adds 25 days to the beginning of the school year.

The state, however, must ensure the programs are carried out with high standards, according to the report.

The report recommends prioritizing money for districts that will carry out K-3 Plus on a schoolwide basis, keep students with the same teacher all year, and ensure there’s only a short gap between the end of K-3 Plus and the beginning of the school year.

The program was hit with budget cuts this year as New Mexico faced a broader financial crisis that exhausted its reserves and damaged its credit rating. Altogether, the state awarded about $18 million this summer for K-3 Plus programs, down about 28 percent from the previous year.

Friday’s report comes as New Mexico struggles with low student performance compared with the national average. But it points out that year-to-year growth isn’t necessarily the problem.

“New Mexico schools are advancing learning a little over one year” during each grade, said Matt Montaño, deputy secretary of the Public Education Department.

“If our kids were coming in on a level playing field, that would be sufficient,” he said. “We’d be competing with other states in the country, but we actually need more growth in a given year.”

The 39-page report was prepared by program evaluators who work for the Legislative Finance Committee, a 16-member panel of lawmakers.

Dinces, who led Friday’s presentation, said the report found that New Mexico students – especially from low-income families – tend to change schools often, which contributes to low test scores.

Poverty and high rates of students just learning English are also factors, the report said.

But Dinces said some districts are showing strong grains, despite poverty and other challenges.

The study, she said, tracked specific groups of students as they progressed from kindergarten to third grade and from third to eighth grade.

Several lawmakers said they grew up poor – or moved around often – and that it’s important New Mexico maintain high expectations for every student, regardless of background.

It’s the adults, not the kids, who are responsible, state Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa, said.

“It is essentially all of our fault and all of our problem,” he said. “We need to provide the resources where they’re needed.”

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