Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
A cookie-cutter high school career isn’t for everyone.
So state Public Education Department officials are exploring potential changes to New Mexico graduation requirements that would provide students more room to explore their interests.
Elaine Perea, director of PED’s College and Career Readiness Bureau, briefed a key legislative committee on those efforts Friday and suggested several revisions to the state’s graduation requirements for proving competency.
The proposal was an early step in the conversation for legislators and policymakers.
Many of the suggestions center on baking competency into every class, Perea said. She added that the proposed changes were also focused on “building in the community’s ability to guide toward their needs.”
“The schedule is very, very crowded and there is not room for student voice, for student choice, for community concerns, for honoring our heritage,” Perea said. “We need to think about ways to reduce the crowding in the schedule.”
Perea said the suggestions she presented were developed with the help of working groups made up of around a quarter of PED staff across different bureaus. Those people mostly volunteered, she said, and constituted a “significant representation of educator experience.”
For math units, Perea discussed several pathway substitutions focused on career technical education as well as providing “a lot more flexibility in the program.” Some of the alternatives included in the presentation were finance, information technology and STEM education concentrations.
Under science substitutions, Perea offered up health and agriculture as alternatives for more flexibility for juniors and seniors. She also floated the idea of bumping the required amount of units for science and social studies up to four units each.
“There has to be a space for the hardcore academic nerd … as well as the person who says ‘I don’t like book learning, I need to use my hands,'” Perea said. “Both of those people have value in our society and are important members of our community.”
As possible substitutions for language pathways, she listed journalism, communications and debate. Perea also discussed allowing students to count world languages at level two or higher as a fourth language unit. She said studying grammar, nonfiction writing and literature in any language is important for developing competency.
Perea added that change would help with “honoring our language learners.” She noted that planners kept the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit – and a judge’s 2018 ruling that the state wasn’t providing a sufficient education for at-risk students – in mind as they worked on graduation policy changes.
The plan Perea laid out may include ditching some courses, like Algebra II, New Mexico History and physical education courses, Perea said. The plan currently accounts for a minimum of 18 units, with 16 core academics and two electives.
In New Mexico History’s case, the course has now been woven into standards for U.S. History. In other cases, like for algebra and PE, classes may be dropped to make space “for students to pursue whatever their thing is.”
“It’s OK if not everybody’s competent in Algebra II. We want to make sure that people are competent in something,” Perea said. “I’m OK if my pilot doesn’t know how to drill teeth. But my dentist better know how to drill teeth, and he can not fly a plane … we all have differences.”
Officials pointed out that New Mexico has more stringent graduation requirements than many other states, but at the same time has recently lagged behind national graduation rates.
According to a hearing brief prepared by a Legislative Education Study Committee policy analyst, New Mexico’s high school graduation rate in 2021 was 77%, up two percentage points from the year before. The national four-year graduation rate is about 85%, according to the brief.
New Mexico students must earn 24 units of coursework to graduate from high school, Senior Policy Analyst Jessica Hathaway said. Nine other states require the same number of credits, according to 2019 National Center for Education Statistics data.
Hathaway noted that more research would be needed to concretely link New Mexico’s lagging graduation rate with the state’s required number of credits.
As of 2019, 11 states including New Mexico require exit exams as a requirement for graduation, according to the brief. Students have been able to choose from a “menu of options” of exams since 2019, they said in other presentation materials.
Officials added that New Mexico’s practice of requiring exams for graduation goes against recommendations from several research groups. As part of the proposal, Perea suggested removing the requirement for students to hit a certain score on exams, saying it “may not be appropriate for it to be a gate” for students “at the very last mile.”
She added that the practice raises questions about how to fairly compare different assessments to each other, and she questioned whether standardized tests value the things that New Mexico communities do, like teamwork.
“It’s really basically impossible to say that a score on the SAT is in some way equivalent to a mechanical score on an (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery),” she said. “We can set cut scores on both, but how do we know if those are really equivalents?”
PED spokeswoman Carolyn Graham said Friday’s meeting was very preliminary, and that there’s still a lot to consider before changes can be made. Hathaway said the LESC is interested in changes to state statute during the 2023 legislative session, and plans to continue discussing the topic during the interim.