A lot of people still don't understand how grades are determined for New Mexico schools under the state's new A-F system.
A hearing of the Legislative Education Study Committee on Thursday that was scheduled for 90 minutes turned into a four-hour session. It included a presentation of a committee report on the grading appeals system, testimony from Rio Rancho Public Schools representative Theresa Saiz and a lengthy question-and-answer period with Hanna Skandera, secretary of education-designate.
Skandera spent a lot of time reiterating information and answering questions, but it was apparent that a good number of the legislators -- many of whom said they were speaking on behalf of their educational and parental constituents -- still can't figure out the method behind the new grading plan.
The Legislature adopted the new 100-point grading system into law last year to provide clearer data on how the state's schools are performing. The Public Education Department released preliminary grades in January for the state's 831 schools. The official grades were released in July.
Up to 40 points are based on the results of three years of data from the Standards Based Assessments administered annually; up to 10 points can be earned by showing increased student proficiency over three years; 20 points are based on improvement among the highest-performing students; another 20 points are based on improvement among the lowest performing students; and schools can earn up to 10 points based on attendance records and student views of how their school environment fosters achievement. In addition, five "bonus" points can be picked up by demonstrating the school has student and parental engagement programs.
Skandera told the lawmakers that a technical manual explaining the calculations behind the formula in the grading plan will be updated and available online sometime in September. But several lawmakers said some schools within their districts didn't bother appealing their grades because they still don't understand how they were put together, and argued that the specifics should have been spelled out earlier in the process.
The committee report, presented by staffer Sarah M. Amador-Guzman, reflected interviews with 27 superintendents around the state -- many of whom, she said, requested anonymity for fear of retaliation for criticizing the program. Those participants' concerns included confusion over criteria for acquiring bonus points, a lack of flexibility within the appeals process, and insufficient communication and information about the appeals process. Among the recommendations was a proposal that the Public Education Department withhold all grades until after the appeals process is complete so schools receive a better understanding of where they stand.
Saiz told the committee, "It would have been preferable for tentative scores created through a still immature system to have been kept private until the system had been tested, revised and validated."
Skandera, in response, noted that the state had to move fast to qualify for a waiver from several measures under the federally mandated No Child Left Behind Act.
Barbara Vigil Lowder of the New Mexico Coalition of School Administrators stood up during the discussion to note that superintendents around the state have told the coalition, "the complexity of it is an issue ... the changes made along the way are confusing to districts."
Skandera and several representatives made a point of saying that the federal Adequate Yearly Progress report is also difficult to explain and just as complex to comprehend. Skandera kept emphasizing that even though the new system follows a three-year cohort in many instances, it also allows the state to focus on each child individually and follow how she/he is performing.
That led to an exchange between Skandera and Rep. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, that played up the confusion behind the plan. Stewart said people don't understand how a child moves from one grade to another as an individual if that child is also part of a 25 percent cohort that is followed and graded from third to fourth to fifth grade.
"Are they an individual or (part of) a cohort?" Stewart asked.
"They can move out but we follow their growth within that cohort," Skandera replied.
"So you stay in the bottom 25 percent?," Stewart said.
"I'll need to provide clarification for you," Skandera said, seemingly not knowing the answer.
Later, near the session's end and after checking with an aide, Skandera told the committee that the lowest 25 percentile of students can change if an individual student moves up and out of that cohort group due to increasing proficiency.
In July, 39 of the state's schools received an A, 198 a B, 275 a C, 250 a D, and 69 an F. Since that time, 75 have appealed their grades and according to what Skandera told the committee Thursday, the state has approved about a third of those appeals and expects to give those roughly 25 schools a higher grade by the end of August. In addition, one of the appealing schools may see its grade decrease. Revised grades for these appealing schools will be posted on the department's website by Aug. 31, she said.
The committee intends to continue studying the A-F system in an effort to understand it, said Sen. Cynthia Nava, D-Las Cruces, co-chairwoman of the committee.
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