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Editorial: Grad rates climb to 73.9%; can NM keep trajectory?

When Susana Martinez took office as the 31st governor of New Mexico, just 63 percent of the state’s public school students graduated high school in four years.

That meant around four of every 10 kids did not get the education they deserve, the education New Mexico taxpayers pour billions of dollars into every year.

Over Martinez’s two terms, New Mexico adopted measures, many unpopular, that keyed on student growth and preparedness and system accountability: A-F school grades and individual teacher and principal evaluations based in great part on student improvement. End-of-course exams designed by teachers that ensured students across the state were equally prepared for the next chapter in their lives. More dual-credit and advanced placement coursework. More dual-credit high schools. PSAT fees covered for every student. A standardized test based on the Common Core curriculum.

There was no more soft bigotry of low expectations. No more apologies for students having “street-fighting skills” rather than academic ability.

These eight years of high standards and accountability earned New Mexico first a waiver from the onerous regulations of the No Child Left Behind Act, then national recognition for its metrics under the Every Student Succeeds Act. And they brought New Mexico’s graduation rate from 63 percent in 2011 to just shy of 74 percent in 2018 – a 17.3 percent increase in seven years.

But even more importantly, these standards and this accountability ensured New Mexico’s graduates are better prepared for college or career. New Mexico students’ remediation rates at colleges have dropped from around 50 percent to 33 percent.

The data points are overwhelmingly positive, especially when you consider where the state was.

The new secretary of Education, Karen Trujillo, is right, there is more work to do. She would like the graduation rate to hit 80 percent in the next four years (the U.S. graduation rate for 2016-’17 was about 85 percent).

New Mexico needs her to succeed. But staying on this positive trajectory could be difficult considering Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the 2019 New Mexico Legislature have removed many of Martinez’s reforms that got the state to 73.9 percent. The PARCC exam is gone (replaced by a PARCC-lite version this year). School grades are gone (replaced by an unintelligible, feel-good “dashboard”). Teacher and principal evaluations are being re-tooled.

New Mexico’s students deserve graduation rates at 80 percent and above with diplomas that mean they are truly ready for the next chapter in their lives. Taxpayers do too, especially considering they will be kicking in more than $3 billion to K-12 education this coming fiscal year. Here’s to Lujan Grisham and Trujillo ensuring that all changes are for the better for the sake of our students, and not just for the sake of change.

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.