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Editorial: Senator’s education moves would take NM backward

When not even a third of your public school students can read or do math at grade level, why would you want to reduce accountability in the education system? That’s the bottom line to a question the New Mexico Legislature should take seriously.

Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, is proposing a study group to come up with an “alternative assessment model” to measure student achievement, as well as a constitutional amendment to replace the state secretary of education with a 10-member elected state school board that picks a state school superintendent. His argument is that using student final exam and standardized test scores for teacher evaluations and school grades is “essentially devastating entire communities,” and relying on a Cabinet secretary to set priorities means the state’s focus changes with each administration.

History and data prove he is wrong on both points.

Regarding the assessments, Padilla says standardized tests can’t capture diverse abilities and “just filling in a bubble on a test, there is so much more to that young person’s life. They may be skilled in art; they may be a musician.” First, these are not basic “bubble” tests, as Padilla claims, but tests that require critical thinking and problem-solving, that give credit for being able to show your work, that even adapt up or down based on a student’s answers to truly gauge ability.

Second, there are inarguably art and music talents in the Farmington, Gallup, Gadsden and Pojoaque school districts – which rely on the same federally required standardized tests and Legislature-mandated final exams as everyone else. These districts have improved their students’ proficiency up to 36 percent in the past year.

Real leaders in those districts have embraced accountability, data and mentoring programs, and proven it is possible to ensure more students can read and do math at a level that will allow them to succeed. Art and music are important; so is being able to manage your finances, and read and fill out a 1040EZ.

And that peels back the real argument for bypassing student proficiency. There have always been proficiency assessments in our schools. But now teachers and schools being held accountable for what they produce in terms of student academic growth. Yet it bears repeating that teachers and schools that embrace data-driven programs are moving mountains: In the most recent round of evals and grades, 18 schools with low-income minority student populations improved their students’ academic performance so much that they bettered their school standings three full letter grades. In fact, the latest round of PARCC standardized test results show 57 out of 89 districts improved in English and 77 improved in math. And 12,000 more kids are reading at grade level. All any teacher or school is expected to do in the eval and grade system is improve their students’ performance.

In addition, there is already much more to teacher evaluations and school grades than test results: Less than half of the state’s teachers are at the full 50 percent of their grade based on student test scores, and classroom observations account for at least 40 percent and up to 90 percent of an evaluation. There have been proposals to reduce the weight of student test scores, yet many legislative Democrats have refused any compromise and rejected using student achievement as a measure at all.

With all that said, what, exactly, isn’t working with how New Mexico measures student performance – other than districts that focus on their adult employees more than their kids?

As for Padilla’s renewed attempt to abolish the secretary of education post, a history lesson shows it was created in 2003 when the Democrat-controlled Legislature approved sending voters a constitutional amendment to get rid of the state Board of Education and state superintendent of public instruction. Voters approved the change and then-Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, announced “voters spoke loud and clear when they endorsed the idea of a secretary of education. They want real accountability for our educational system.”

Yet, now, Padilla wants to go back to that lack of accountability his party rejected more than a decade ago. As Sen. Gay Kernan, a Hobbs Republican, pointed out when Padilla tried this in 2014, “it’s amazing how, when things are not to your liking, you want to go back to the old way.”

And what is not to the liking of Padilla and other opponents of education accountability is just that – education accountability.

New Mexico spends $2.75 billion annually to educate its 338,000 K-12 students. It is 36th in the nation for annual per-pupil spending, but 49th on quality of education measures. Just over 27 percent of New Mexico students are proficient in reading and barely 20 percent are proficient in math. Six years of school report cards and two years of PARCC scores – reforms advocated by Secretary of Education Hanna Skandera – show schools and districts that embrace accountability are improving their students’ academic achievement, and Skandera has ensured all the data is posted online so the public can finally see exactly what it is getting for its investment.

What New Mexico schools have been getting is better. Padilla’s proposals would send them backward. And the bottom line is that New Mexico, its taxpayers, its businesses and especially its children cannot afford to go in that direction.

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.