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Legislator seeks new way to evaluate students

A Democratic state senator says New Mexico needs to take a fresh look at the way it measures student achievement – a key component of teacher evaluations, as well as school and district grades.

Sen. Michael Padilla of Albuquerque has introduced a joint memorial asking the Public Education Department and Legislative Education Study Committee to convene a working group to develop an “alternative assessment model” that goes beyond standardized test scores.

Currently, the PED mandates several exams statewide, including the controversial Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, which tracks progress in math and English.

In most cases, PED weighs improvement on standardized tests like PARCC as half of a teacher’s evaluation, with measures like student surveys and attendance making up the other half. Test scores also affect school and district letter grades, which PED calculates each year.

Padilla argues that those calculations should consider other measures of student success.

“I think just filling in a bubble on a test, there is so much more to that young person’s life,” he said. “They may be skilled in art; they may be a musician.”

Standardized tests can’t capture diverse abilities, Padilla said, so school grades are presenting only part of the picture.

Statewide, nearly as many schools earned F’s as A’s – 13 percent versus 14 percent – in the latest round of grading. The most common grade was a C.

The school grades consider a variety of factors besides test scores, including attendance, graduation rates and parent surveys.

“If you take a look at the current assessment model that Gov. (Susana) Martinez and Secretary (Hanna) Skandera have implemented, it is essentially devastating entire communities,” Padilla said. “When you think about the elementary school in our neighborhood, that is the anchor in our communities. When you label an entire school an F, as an example, every student goes to school every morning, wakes up every morning, puts their clothes on and does homework at night and says, ‘My goodness, I go to an F school.’ ”

Members of the proposed working group – community leaders, teachers, school administrators, researchers and higher-education representatives – would meet through fall 2017 to come up with a new approach. For instance, students could receive a cumulative score that combines traditional exam results with other measures, such as final presentations or portfolios.

Those cumulative scores would be weighed in teacher evaluations, as well as school and district grades, to assess “the full body of student work, rather than just one or two tests,” Padilla said.

“You have bipartisan across-the-state and across-the-aisle support for an alternative system,” he said. “This is actually going to be a solution that is derived from the community rather than just forced on the community.”

In an emailed statement, PED spokesman Robert McEntyre said PARCC is one of the best assessments in the country and it is delivering results for thousands of kids.

New Mexico PARCC results went up in 2016, the second year the state administered the exam: 57 out of 89 districts improved in English; 77 improved in math.

According to PED, roughly 12,000 more students are on grade level in reading or math compared with last year.

Still, on the latest round of PARCC testing, only 19.9 percent of students met or exceeded expectations in math and 27.7 percent in English.

Tony Monfiletto, New Mexico Center for School Leadership director and a supporter of the joint memorial, said standardized test results are valuable but limited.

The center’s four charter schools – ACE Leadership High, Tech Leadership High, Health Leadership High and Siembra Leadership High – already look beyond scores, requiring a capstone project that demonstrates students’ ability to solve a real-world problem in their chosen field.

The Leadership high schools, which attract kids who struggle in traditional classrooms, have not fared well in PED’s grading system, earning D’s and an F.

Their school reports show that few students are on grade level and test scores did not improve markedly. But the Leadership network got high marks for student attendance, as well as parent and student surveys that rate the schools as “good places to learn.”

Monfiletto said his curriculum stresses “applied learning” – skills such as teamwork and ingenuity that are valuable to employers but difficult to measure on a bubble sheet.

“There has been a ton of work done around the country in rethinking what assessment would look like to match the future economy and the future needs of states and communities,” Monfiletto said. “Standardized tests are part of that, but not the full picture.”

He argued that the PED should take advantage of a recent federal law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, that gives states more freedom to craft their own education policies. ESSA replaced No Child Left Behind in December 2015 with strong bipartisan support.

Under ESSA, seven states will receive funding to pilot assessment systems that use “multiple measures of student academic achievement from multiple sources.”

“ESSA is very ambitious about moving control and innovation back to the states and hoping states come forward with new ideas around assessment,” Monfiletto said. “We want to be part of that conversation.”