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PED’s retention plan back on the table

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration – after failing to win legislative approval – is moving ahead with a proposal that would direct New Mexico public schools to hold back students who can’t read proficiently, in some circumstances.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers, in turn, questioned the Martinez administration’s authority to carry out the rule change.

“It seems to be going around the will of the Legislature in a very deliberate manner,” Sen. William Soules, D-Las Cruces, said in a committee hearing Monday.

Public Education Secretary Christopher Ruszkowski

The state Public Education Department, in turn, said the proposal is built on language that’s already in state law, allowing the mandatory retention of students, even if a parent objects, in some cases.

State education chief Christopher Ruszkowski called Monday’s criticism a “political hit job” and pointed out that much of the proposal focuses on requiring additional, early help and services for children who cannot read at grade level.

“There were a number of inaccurate, incomplete, intellectually inconsistent assertions made about the proposed early literacy rule at today’s (committee) meeting,” he said in a written statement.

Proposals to end “social promotion” in New Mexico – by requiring third graders to be proficient in reading before moving on – have repeatedly failed to make it through the Legislature. Martinez, first elected governor in 2010, leaves office at the end of this year.

State law, nonetheless, already allows for mandatory retention of students who – for two years in a row – aren’t academically proficient. But the measuring stick under the current law includes the student’s grades and other standards identified by the school district.

The rule proposed by the Martinez administration this year focuses on reading proficiency, based on a state assessment. Proposed legislation focusing on reading skills – not the broader criteria mentioned in state law – have failed to win approval from lawmakers.

Rep. Linda Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, said state law, as it stands now, grants districts some measure of control over how to handle retention of students.

The proposed change “is just really disturbing,” she said.

Rep. Monica Youngblood, an Albuquerque Republican who has pushed to end social promotion, said the state Public Education Department is simply responding to the “alarming number” of young people who can’t read at grade level.

“I think they’re doing what they think they need to do to help our students be successful,” she said.

Just 26 percent of third grade students were proficient in reading in the 2017 fiscal year, according to a legislative analysis released earlier this year. And New Mexico ranked 50th in the nation in reading proficiency, according to a January report released by New Mexico Voices for Children.

The proposed rule change would apply to schools teaching students in kindergarten through third grade, and it covers more than just retention. The proposal also calls for a variety of steps to help students who struggle with reading – including the creation of an individual plan to help each youngster who isn’t proficient on a midyear assessment.

But it would also require schools to retain students who fail to reach proficiency in reading, based on a state assessment.

Parents could sign a waiver allowing the student to move on to the next grade the first time. But retention would be mandatory if the student fails to read proficiently at the end of the next year. The proposal would allow some exemptions.

“It seeks to codify that which is already found in state statute – which already includes language requiring additional instruction for students who can’t read,” Ruszkowski said.

Soules, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said the proposed rule change is similar to legislation that lawmakers have rejected.

Opponents of the bills have said it isn’t fair to base a retention decision on one test on a single subject.

Charles Goodmacher, a lobbyist for the National Education Association New Mexico, said the PED “is once again demonstrating its top-down approach to education issues in the state.”

The conflict surfaced Monday in a meeting of the Legislative Education Study Committee, a nine-member panel that meets between legislative sessions.

Lawmakers were split on whether the proposal is good policy. But there was no opposition to sending a letter to the Public Education Department, questioning the department’s authority to act on its own.

In any case, it wouldn’t be the first time the Martinez administration has taken action through an administrative rule, even after legislation failed to pass. New Mexico’s teacher evaluation system was established by rule in 2012 after a bill stalled in the Legislature.

The Public Education Department is now accepting public comment, with a hearing scheduled May 17 in Santa Fe.

If approved, the proposal would go into effect July 1.

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