Some question whether state’s plan to implement new federal education law is realistic

May 21, 2017 GMT

When then-President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, he called the bipartisan agreement a “Christmas miracle.” Teachers and their unions cheered the new law, which was intended to give states and school districts more control over student testing and school accountability.

“It helps states and districts reduce unnecessary standardized tests,” Obama said at the Dec. 10, 2015, bill-signing ceremony. “Because what we want to do is get rid of unnecessary standardized tests so that more teachers can spend time engaging in student learning.”

But a review of New Mexico’s 160-page plan to implement the new law shows few changes from the state’s current education policies. In the fact, the document reads more like an affirmation of the policies Republican Gov. Susana Martinez and her public education secretary, Hanna Skandera, have been putting in place over the last six years, some of which have drawn sharp criticism from school district leaders across the state, as well as teachers and their unions. The plan also places a heavier focus on standardized tests and sets higher expectations for student achievement without increasing resources to meet those goals.

Skandera submitted the plan to the U.S. Department of Education for approval last month. The department is expected to respond later this year.

Since submitting it, Skandera has been visiting with groups of educators across the state, armed with a PowerPoint presentation explaining the broad strokes of the plan.

“We have our foundation,” Skandera told a group of teachers at a recent gathering in Pojoaque. “We don’t have to start over. Our state is headed in the right direction.”

According to the plan, the state’s controversial policy tying teacher evaluations to student test scores will remain in place, with some modifications. So will the state’s contentious A-F school grading system, though some new measures will be added to that in 2018.

The plan also makes it clear that New Mexico is committed to sticking to the PARCC standardized test, developed by the private education giant Pearson, even as many other states have abandoned it in favor of alternative exams.

And the state will continue to hold schools accountable for maintaining a 95 percent testing ratio among students. If schools fail to hit that threshold, their grades will drop by a letter.

For many teachers and education officials who hoped that ESSA would usher in a new era after years of trying to adhere to the No Child Left Behind Act, Skandera’s plan is less than inspiring.

“It’s pretty much, with a few tweaks, the current educational reform approach to public school improvement,” said Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica García.

To be sure, the plan offers ambitious goals, promising to increase graduation rates from 71 percent — among the lowest in the nation — to 85 percent by 2022. Math proficiency on PARCC tests would rise to 61.2 percent from 20 percent over that same period, and English language arts proficiency would rise to 64.9 percent from 27.8 percent.

While the plan sets a lofty goal of increasing both achievement rates and high school graduation numbers, it also would raise PARCC exam requirements for graduates. The state currently allows students to graduate if they score within the third level of PARCC’s five-tier grading system. A score of 3 on an exam is considered “approaching proficiency,” while a score in Level 4 or Level 5 is considered passing.

By 2018, all high-schoolers would have to score at least a 4 on the PARCC exams to graduate — a steep hill to climb in just over a year, considering more than a quarter of students’ scores in both math and English fell into Level 3 in 2016.

But the state already allows some flexibility for graduates, according to data. About 70 percent of high school students statewide earned a 3 or above on the English test for grade 11 in 2016, closely in line with the graduation rate. But only 38 percent of high school students achieved a 3 or above on the Algebra 2 test, the highest-level math test under PARCC. Less than 16 percent of students earned a 4 on the Algebra 2 test, and less than 1 percent earned a 5. If those numbers didn’t dramatically improve, the state would see a steep decline in graduation numbers under the ESSA plan.

If there is a need to invest in resources to improve those scores and graduation rates, the plan offers few details on how much it will cost or how the state will pay for it.

“The plan says we will get there,” said Charles Bowyer, executive director of the National Education Association of New Mexico. “It doesn’t say where the resources are to help us get there.”

Others question whether the Public Education Department, despite holding a number of community forums to solicit input and ideas on shaping the plan, really paid attention to the response.

“ESSA is supposed to be about supporting local districts and the state, but really for local districts to have a voice. Is that happening? That’s a question that needs an answer,” said Taos schools Superintendent Lillian Torrez, who serves on the governing board of the American Association of School Superintendents and will present highlights of the state’s ESSA plan when the association gathers in Washington, D.C., in early June.

In interviews with The New Mexican, Skandera said the plan is all about supporting the state’s 89 school districts and about 50 public charter schools.

The Public Education Department’s recent decision to reduce the weight of student test score results in teacher evaluations, to 35 percent from 50 percent — which is spotlighted in a 15-page section on improving teacher effectiveness and recruiting new educators — is just one sign that “we made changes based on teachers’ voices,” she said.

“When the feds talk ‘local,’ ” Skandera added, “they are talking about state control. When states talk ‘local,’ they are talking about the districts.”

A look inside

New Mexico is one of about a dozen states that have already submitted their ESSA plans to the U.S. Department of Education. The rest of the states are expected to do the same before September.

Liz Hill, a spokeswoman for the federal Education Department, said states can request changes to the plan even after it is approved.

Though much of New Mexico’s ESSA plan includes measures already in place, some of it may require some heavy lifting. One ambitious goal is improving high school graduation rates by 14 percent in the next five years — which Skandera says the state can do if it borrows the best practices of districts already achieving that goal.

The state’s graduation rate jumped from 69 percent to 71 percent from 2015 to 2016, so if that pace continues, the goal is reachable, said Barbara Patterson, a former educator and Albuquerque school board member who has studied the ESSA plan.

But Patterson is less certain about the plan’s call for improvements in math and reading proficiency, based on students’ scores on tests administered through a consortium of states called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. New Mexico students took the PARCC exams, which are aligned with the Common Core State Standards, for the third time this spring. Far fewer students have earned proficient scores on the PARCC tests than on their predecessor, a series of state-developed exams called Standards Based Assessments.

“I think it’s an off-base goal,” Patterson said of the state’s aim for a more than threefold increase in the number of students who score proficient on PARCC tests. She also questions the state’s continued heavy reliance on such tests, though she believes they do provide a good snapshot of student proficiency that can be used to help struggling students.

Skandera said the achievement goals are based on gains made by students in a couple of the other states that use the PARCC exams to evaluate student proficiency. New Jersey students, for example, improved in math and English language arts at every grade level, sometimes making leaps of 5 percentage points to 7 percentage points, between 2015 and 2016. Rhode Island students improved by 5 percent in math and 2 percent in reading between those two years.

Results haven’t been so positive in the three other PARCC states. Colorado reported almost no growth in that period. Illinois students made slight gains in math but also saw drops in reading. Maryland students’ scores showed a mix of increases and decreases among grade levels.

In its ESSA plan, the New Mexico Public Education Department calls PARCC the “highest quality assessment program possible” and says the state will continue to use it to hold students and teachers accountable.

“It’s the best assessment to capture and maintain high standards,” Skandera told The New Mexican. “It’s not a fill-in-the-bubble test. It measures real thinking. It provides an in-depth study of whether students know how to connect the dots” in math and English. Based on the latest available PARCC scores for New Mexico, about 20 percent of students are proficient in math and just under 28 percent are proficient in reading.

New Mexico launched its PARCC testing in the spring of 2015, generating protests and student walkouts statewide. The tests have met with little opposition, however, in the past two years.

The PARCC consortium initially included the District of Columbia and 26 states, including New Mexico, that were seeking a way to assess student proficiency in the Common Core State Standards, a set of rigorous academic goals meant to better prepare students for college or careers out of high school.

While most of those states have since abandoned PARCC, Skandera has remained a firm supporter, even serving as the consortium’s chairwoman and using New Mexico as its purchasing agent. Since 2014, the Public Education Department has issued Pearson PLC, the British educational conglomerate hired to write and administer the test, more than $12 million in contracts, state records show.

Skandera’s commitment to PARCC has drawn criticism over the years, in part because of her history with Pearson. The company is a major donor to the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a nonprofit founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush that has helped corporate donors gain access to state officials like Skandera and has championed PARCC. Skandera was a Bush protege who worked as Florida’s deputy secretary of education during his administration and has modeled many of her policies in New Mexico after Florida’s.

Skandera praised her department’s push to decrease the amount of time that students spend on PARCC exams by close t0 90 minutes over this past year. The ESSA plan says the state hopes to continue to cut the time spent on testing over the next few years, though Skandera said she cannot promise that will happen.

In an effort to close an achievement gap between English-language learners and native English speakers, the ESSA plan calls for students learning English to make proficiency strides of at least 2 percent each year, ultimately becoming fluent and moving out of dual-language programs within seven years. The plan calls for close monitoring of students’ progress and intervention programs.

Jim Lyons, senior policy adviser for the nonprofit Dual Language Education of New Mexico, says the goal can be reached if the state invests more dollars in support services for students and their families, who may be facing an array of social, health and financial problems.

What concerns him, he said, is not the state’s goal of improving students’ English-language proficiency rates but what he sees as low expectations for success.

He cited a chart in the ESSA report that sets a goal of having just 50 percent to 51 percent of English learners be proficient in both math and English language arts by 2020. “In other words,” he said, “half of those students will not be proficient. I find that mind-boggling. … I find it offensive. Do people know that one out of every two of their kids is expected to fail five years from now?”

Other parts of the ESSA plan reveal some new ideas. The state plans to implement its own grading system for teacher-preparation programs in New Mexico colleges by the end of the year.

“Students deserve to know, if they want to be a science teacher, which college is the best for preparing them,” Skandera said.

The initiative comes as a recent report by the nonprofit National Council on Teacher Quality gave several New Mexico colleges and universities low scores when it comes to preparing their students for teaching careers.

Under the ESSA plan, the state also will seek federal grants and invest more of its federal funding for low-income students to support low-performing schools’ efforts to achieve a turnaround. But schools that don’t show improvements within a certain period of time, based on the state’s A-F school grading system, could be converted into charter schools or even closed, the plan says.

Betty Patterson, president of the National Education Association of New Mexico, said she finds that idea alarming. “They talk about going in, replacing the staff, redoing the school,” she said. “Those are harsh possibilities. That is not a positive way to improve a school that is not doing well.”

During her presentation in Pojoaque, Skandera said the state’s ESSA plan doesn’t require additional funding from the state, which has been struggling with financial crises. Rather, she said, she and her staff hope to find ways to leverage federal dollars to implement and expand on the plan’s initiatives.

What’s next?

Skandera and some members of her staff have been visiting school communities around the state to tout the plan and take questions. One teacher in the small group at the Pojoaque gathering spoke in favor of a professional development mentoring program, called Principals Pursuing Excellence, and urged Skandera to expand it. The ESSA plan calls for just that.

Another educator told Skandera she liked the broad overview of the plan but said, “I didn’t hear anything super concrete about how we are going to do all this, and I would like to hear that.”

Skandera urged her to read the full report, something the education secretary jokingly called “an exciting read.”

Lyons, who said he has read a few other states’ ESSA plans, said, “Some are more aspirational than New Mexico’s. Others are not. But few states are in such dire straits as New Mexico. We’re usually 51st in the country in education — below the District of Columbia.”

It’s unclear when the state will find out if the U.S. Department of Education will approve its ESSA plan. Skandera said she expects a response before September.

Congress recently voted to remove some of the accountability portions of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which has muddied the waters, leaving many educators and experts confused about what that means for states that already have submitted their plans.

“So where do we stand on that?” Lyons asked. “We could be standing on the edge of the universe and not even aware whether gravity exists around us.”

Contact Robert Nott at 505-986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.com.