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SBA makes a controversial exit

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

After 10 years, the Standards Based Assessment is out as New Mexico’s main standardized test used to measure student achievement. Next spring, students will take the PARCC exam to test their math, reading and writing skills.

But before the SBA makes its curtain call as the state’s most important test, it has become part of a debate in the state’s gubernatorial contest between incumbent Republican Susana Martinez and Attorney General Gary King, a Democrat.

Senate Democrats criticized Martinez and the Public Education Department after the Journal recently published a story about five-year trends in SBA scores that showed the percentage of students performing at grade level or above in reading dropped 4.2 percentage points between 2010 and 2014. Math scores dropped 1.5 percentage points in that period.

PED officials point out that the biggest decline in reading test scores – 3.4 percentage points – during the five-year period examined by the Journal occurred between 2010 and 2011, before Martinez had implemented any of her reform agenda after taking office Jan. 1, 2011. Math scores went down 0.4 percentage points that year.

In any case, it’s problematic to compare SBA scores from the years before 2011 with those that came after because the PED changed the way the test was scored in 2011. The change involved scaling the test the same way for all grade levels so the state could better track how individual students were progressing year to year, according to a 2011 PED memorandum.

That information wasn’t included in the earlier Journal story published Aug. 4, nor was it mentioned by officials interviewed for that story.

The changes were made after Skandera took over at the PED.

“PED adjusted the SBA scale in 2011 to allow for meaningful growth comparisons as students moved from grade to grade. Being able to meaningfully look at student growth year over year provides a better picture of the progress our students and schools are making. The change was in the works for some time but was finalized under this administration,” said PED spokesman Larry Behrens.

Comparing the four years since the change, 2011 to 2014, the percentage of students across all grades reading on grade level dropped 0.8 percentage points and in math, 1.1 percentage points. Skandera says when students who took the test on computers this year are excluded, reading levels actually rose – by 0.8 percentage points.

When the most recent SBA figures were released, Skandera said there was much work to be done, but stressed the figures also revealed some good news – that more students moved up a proficiency level in reading than moved a step backward last school year.

There are four proficiency levels on the SBA – beginning steps, nearing proficiency, proficiency and advanced. Proficiency is considered at grade level.

Across the state, 20.4 percent improved a level on reading scores last school year, while 16.9 percent dropped back a level, PED said. The rest stayed the same. However, in math, those who moved down a proficiency level – 17.8 percent – slightly outnumbered those who went up – 16.4 percent.

SBA history

The SBA exam was first used in 2005 under then-Gov. Bill Richardson to replace the former standardized test.

It was among several of Richardson’s education initiatives, which included creation of the PED. Previously, the Public Education Commission had oversight responsibility of the state’s schools.

The SBA was created by the education company Measured Progress, with the help of New Mexico teachers, according to Journal archives.

PED spokeswoman Aimee Barabe said during the four years the Martinez administration has been in office most grade levels have seen improvement on the SBA.

Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez took a different view, looking at the trend in test scores over the past five years. In a recent news release, he said, “It’s unfortunate and frankly devastating to see that our children have declined in their testing abilities; and if this administration continues to ignore the legislature, education professionals and the state’s educational needs, this will continue.”

“I don’t know how the administration will twist these latest statistics, but my hope is that they will start being more cooperative with all those invested in our education system. What I do know is that parents, teachers and students alike, deserve the truth,” Sanchez said.

In response, Behrens said, “After dismissing student achievement measures for years, even to the point of encouraging students to skip tests, it’s certainly interesting to see these defenders of the status quo all of a sudden care about them.”

The SBA was first given during the 2004-05 school year, Behrens said. The No Child Left Behind Act, the federal education law, required states to give standardized tests to students in an effort to track academic achievement.

Under the 2001 law, states that got federal funds had to administer standardized tests like the SBA beginning in 2005. Students were supposed to show “adequate yearly progress” on the exam and be on grade level by 2014. That didn’t happen in New Mexico or elsewhere.

In 2012, the state received a No Child Left Behind waiver from the U.S. Department of Education, exempting it from the law’s adequate yearly progress requirements. In return, New Mexico agreed to adopt the Common Core standards, switch to the PARCC exam and create a new teacher evaluation system that included a measure of student achievement, among other initiatives.

As for the slight decline in the overall proficiency rate during the Martinez administration, Skandera said that was due to the students who were taking the SBAs on computers.

When excluding those students, the percentage of students scoring at grade level in reading increased 0.8 percentage points over the past four years. In math, the percentage of students scoring at grade level grew by 0.9 percentage points.

“The data is encouraging, but there’s much more work to be done – including a need to stop passing K-3 students from grade to grade who haven’t mastered the basics, so that they haven’t already fallen behind when entering these tested grades,” Barabe said, referring to Martinez’s proposal to keep third-graders from going on to fourth grade if they cannot read at grade level. The Democratic-controlled Legislature has rejected the proposal each of the past three years.

Looking ahead

Skandera has said the new PARCC exam is a “21st century test” better suited to gauge whether students are ready for college than the SBA. Along with Common Core standards, which the state adopted last year, the test is part of an effort to raise expectations for the state’s schools, she said.

The PARCC exam was created by a consortium of states – the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers – that includes New Mexico.

The exam will differ from the SBA in three main ways:

  • It will be taken on a computer, while the SBA was a paper-and-pencil test.
  • It is designed to test the Common Core standards, while the SBA matched the old state standards.
  • It will cover reading, writing and math, while the SBA covered reading, math, science and social studies, in some years. The science portion of the SBA test will be used this year.

Schools across the state are working to make sure they’re prepared for the new test. Shelley Green, chief academic officer for Albuquerque Public Schools, said district officials are focused on making sure APS has enough test-ready computers and proper testing schedules and that students will be prepared to take a computerized test.

There are 13 states in the PARCC consortium, with 10 committed to using the test. New York and Massachusetts have not decided what test they will adopt. In some states, there has been a backlash against the Common Core – and tests associated with them, like the PARCC exam – and some of those states are wavering over which tests to give their students.

Critics have argued that Common Core is part of an effort by the federal government to gain greater control over schools and that the PARCC exam will exacerbate a trend of too much emphasis on standardized testing. In Louisiana, a PARCC member, Gov. Bobby Jindal and the state’s top education official are feuding over the state’s adoption of PARCC. Jindal argues the standards are an overreach by the federal government.

Other states that were originally members, like Indiana, Kentucky and Florida, have dropped out of the consortium.