Senate Bill 229, sponsored by Albuquerque Democrat Sen. Mimi Stewart, would replace easily understood school letter grades with a so-called dashboard guaranteed to drive parents nuts. Any claim its designers make that it provides transparency and accountability needs to be placed firmly in “air quotes.”
Because when a parent looks at their child’s report card, they want to know, first and foremost, if their student is making the grade and has done the work expected. And depending on that grade, follow up with questions about why the student received that grade and whether it shows improvement.
When it comes to New Mexico’s K-12 public schools, all that information is already available on the first page of each school’s six-page report card. Those use students’ standardized test scores, graduation rates and reading improvement to determine a school’s annual letter grade. It shows if students are performing at grade level; if the school as a whole is improving academically; how it compares to the rest of the schools in the state; if the school is ensuring its struggling students as well as its high achievers are making academic progress; and in the case of high schools, if students are graduating and ready for college or careers. The majority of the grade is focused on whether students are improving academically.
Again, all that is on the first page. The next five pages break down reading and math proficiencies among student subgroups, map whether those are improving or not over time, and cover student attendance and survey answers to 10 questions.
The proposed dashboards, by comparison, offer no specific information other than the name of the school and a photo of the principal on the first screen. Parents will have to click through subtopics ranging from “academic achievement” to the murky “our story” and “school quality and student success” to try to figure out how their child’s school is performing. And the quality of that information is now questionable as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham delivered on a campaign promise and left the state without a standardized test benchmarked to the past five years of data.
As this exercise in misdirection was being created by the Legislative Education Study Committee, Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Logan, spoke up to say he worried it would be “coddling” and dilute the successes of schools meeting academic benchmarks. And last week, Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, voted against it in committee because his primary concern as a parent is getting academic information about schools.
We get it; Stewart, the major local teachers unions and some school districts – including Albuquerque Public Schools – are like a student with a poor report card. They want to front-load the conversation with explanations and excuses before parents see their actual grade.
But it gets worse, because with these dashboards there will be no grade. Critics say the grades stigmatize and punish low-performing schools. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act does mandate that states identify schools that are not educating their students, and it has kinder, gentler sounding categories the dashboard crowd must love – $12 feel-good terms including “comprehensive support and improvement,” “targeted support and improvement” and “more rigorous intervention.” Stewart says schools will still be categorized on the dashboard, but instead of letter grades they will be assigned a different label, perhaps a color, to show how they are doing.
And this is simply putting a favored shade of lipstick on a farm animal; parents are not stupid and can equate a red (or yellow or blue or green) school with failing, for example. They deserve transparency, and this misdirection conveniently ignores the fact that while school grades may hurt some adults’ feelings, they also make them do better by our kids.
In 2012, the year after the New Mexico Legislature passed, and then-Gov. Susana Martinez signed, A-F school grades into law, just 4.8 percent of the state’s K-12 public schools earned an “A.” Last year, 12.9 percent did. Since 2015, 13,000 more N.M. students can read at grade level and 11,000 more are on grade-level in math. The need for remedial college courses is down. And in the six years the grades have been in place, an estimated 25,000-plus people have logged on to the state Public Education Department’s website to see how a school is doing. That’s public engagement that helps ensure our schools are accountable to our kids and our taxpayers.
That transparency and accountability need to continue for our children’s sake. Lawmakers need to look at SB 229 as parents and taxpayers and ask if it delivers the information they need to know how a school is doing – information they have gotten since 2012. And they will see it does not deserve a passing grade.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.