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Some N.M. students face dual final exams

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Teachers, parents, students and school board members around New Mexico have pushed back in recent weeks against new state end-of-course exams being given in certain core high school classes.

Chief among their complaints are that the tests are taking more time away from instruction and that students who already spend much of the spring semester taking exams are now being tested twice on the same content.

“At some point, we’re losing so much instructional time that we don’t have time to instruct for the subject that they’re being tested on,” said Lisa Durkin, who teaches biology at Valencia High School in Los Lunas. “And the kids aren’t taking the test seriously, because they’ve had to take so many tests that it just doesn’t mean anything to them anymore.”

State education chief Hanna Skandera said this week she never intended for students to take the end-of-course exams in addition to their existing finals, and agrees that is too much time spent on testing.

“I have a little bit of concern, because it sounds like folks are potentially giving two (final tests), which would not be ideal for kids,” Skandera said.

End-of-course exams were rolled out this year for core high school classes, including algebra II, geometry, English, social studies, biology and chemistry. School districts are already legally required to give a final exam in core classes, and the new tests are part of an effort to make these finals more standardized.

The new tests will also provide an alternative path to graduation for students who don’t earn a passing score on the 11th-grade Standards-Based Assessment, which serves as the high school exit exam in New Mexico.

Skandera said school districts were not required to give the state’s end-of-course exams. If districts already offered a final exam that met state standards, they could have submitted those to the Public Education Department for approval, she said.

The state tests were offered as an option for districts that didn’t have approved finals in place, Skandera said, adding that about 12 of New Mexico’s 89 districts submitted their own end-of-course exams for PED approval. The exams had to be submitted by October, and most were approved.

In Albuquerque Public Schools and several other districts, the state end-of-course exams were given last week. In many cases, students took those exams in addition to the normal finals they will take soon. In most cases, only the regular finals will be included in their grades. Students’ scores on the state exam will be banked in case they don’t pass their SBA.

Administrators were concerned it would be unfair to include the state end-of-course exams in students’ grades, since different teachers emphasize different parts of the state standards in their teaching.

APS school board member Kathy Korte, an outspoken critic of end-of-course exams, said it would have been logistically difficult for APS to submit its own tests to the PED for approval, since it has 13 comprehensive high schools with different finals. Korte said some schools, like Volcano Vista High, have one final exam for all chemistry classes, regardless of who the teacher is. But that may not hold true districtwide.

“The state standards are going to be taught across the board, but how a teacher goes about addressing those state standards varies across schools,” Korte said.

Korte wrote about her opposition to end-of-course exams in an opinion piece published in the Journal last week. She also criticized the content of the tests as too difficult or unnecessary for students to know, which drew ire from some readers who believed the chemistry question she cited was basic for any high school chemistry student.

Regarding the tests for next year, APS officials said they are still weighing their options.

Other districts have handled the new tests in a variety of ways.

Rio Rancho Public Schools students are also taking both tests, both of which will be included in their grades.

The district did not have enough time to prepare its own finals for state approval, but plans to make revisions this summer and submit the tests to the state, said Happy Miller, the district’s executive director of research, assessment, data and accountability. If the state gives approval, Rio Rancho students will have to take only one test at the end of each semester during the 2013-14 school year. Miller said another concern was that the state exam tested students on content they had already been tested on mid-year.

“We would have been double testing the fall standards,” she said. “That would give them more weight than the second semester standards.”

In Santa Fe Public Schools, the state exams are being given in place of regular finals, and will be included in students’ grades.

In Los Lunas, students who did well on the exams won’t have to take an additional final, while students who didn’t pass can take their regular final and try for a higher score to be used in their grades.

Journal Staff Writer Elaine D. BriseƱo contributed to this report.