Are New Mexico students learning? Hard to say without tests

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico Public Education Department officials say few grade-school students participated in state testing last year and that it is impossible to measure learning loss from the pandemic.

On Monday, the New Mexico Education Department said that only 10% of elementary and middle school students took tests last spring despite schools being fully open at the time.

The department also acknowledged that New Mexico won’t be able to measure student increases or decreases in academic proficiency because it hasn’t had standardized, comparable testing since 2018, and won’t have it until 2022.

That means the department won’t be able to compare one year’s test results with another year’s results to measure growth or loss of learning until 2023.

“We’ve changed and we’ve broken our trend line, essentially,” said Lynn Vasquez, Learning Management System director at the New Mexico Public Education Department.

Student testing allows parents to see how their students are doing, using an objective measure outside their school.

Apples-to-apples test comparisons also allow state lawmakers to assess the effectiveness of new programs and consider how to spend public dollars.

Normally, 95% of third and eighth-grade students are tested in compliance with federal testing requirements, but the requirements were waived in 2020. New Mexico and some other states got an “accountability waiver” in 2021 also, with no minimum requirement for testing participation.

Public Education Department officials say they would have wanted at least 80% of students tested in order to establish a baseline of where they are at academically, but few schools did. They said only half of the school districts participated in testing at all.

Albuquerque Public Schools, which serves one in five New Mexico students, only tested 1%.

In February, the legislature will have to decide how to allocate some $3 billion in the annual education budget. They’ll have little data to drive that decision making.

“You can’t understand what you can’t measure,” said state Rep. Patti Lundstrum, a Democrat from Gallup, in a committee hearing last week focused on education testing.

In a report presented to Lundstrum and her colleagues Thursday, legislative researchers argued that some learning loss is measurable, even using data from the education department.

The legislative report determined that the proportion of grade school students proficient in English and math fell from 38% in 2019 to 31% in 2021, while acknowledging that the results only applied to those who took the test.

They concluded average proficiency was probably worse, because students underrepresented in the testing tend to be those hurt by the pivot to remote schooling, including Native Americans, students with disabilities and students whose first language is not English.

The Public Education Department isn’t requiring standardized testing for all schools this fall, either.

For the third year in a row, Lundstrum and her colleagues will not have quality education data they can use to judge education investments.

That’s because the administration of Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham ended a previous set of tests last conducted in 2018 under her Republican predecessor.

The “high stakes” tests were criticized for excessively affecting teacher performance reviews, and pigeonholing students in remedial programs if they did poorly.

Lujan Grisham’s education department replaced the testing regimen temporarily in 2019, planning to pivot to another testing format in 2020, which was canceled by the pandemic. A plan to move high school students to the SAT was also delayed. Last spring only 25% took it.

Next year, Lujan Grisham will run for reelection with no benchmark through which to measure the success of her administration’s handling of education. The data that exists won’t be comparable to her predecessor, or to other states who also had to deal with the pandemic ( many states were not granted accountability waivers in 2021).

Legislators, meanwhile, will have to rely on information from constituents.

“The partnerships with the school districts are going to be really key,” said Gwen Perea Warniment, Deputy Secretary of Teaching, Learning and Assessment.

She said fall testing will be required for schools that accept state funds in order to pay for extra school days, called K5+ in grade schools and extended learning for high schools.

Without comparable testing in schools that didn’t offer the instruction, it’s unclear how legislators will determine if it’s working.

For vulnerable minority groups including students in poverty, Native Americans, students with disabilities and English language learners, education officials say reliable data won’t be processed until 2023.


Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.