Educators question rules for grading schools A-F

November 1, 2011 • State News

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Educators on Monday cautioned Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration against rushing the implementation of a new law requiring the state to assign grades to rate the performance of public schools.

Teachers, superintendents and others raised questions about the grading system at a hearing by the Public Education Department on proposed rules for evaluating schools.

Gloria Rendon of the New Mexico Coalition of School Administrators suggested a pilot program that would initially use the system in a few schools to help work out potential problems in how grades will be determined. Schools, she said, “need the general public to recognize that kids are more than test scores and schools are more than just a grade.”

The A-to-F grading system will be based heavily on standardized tests taken by students and on growth of student performance in reading and mathematics. Other factors include elementary school attendance, high school graduation rate and a survey of students.

“This is not a survey to students saying, [auth] ‘Do you like your teacher?’ This is asking, ‘What’s happening in the classroom?'” said Public Education Secretary Hanna Skandera.

Student participation in extracurricular activities and parental involvement also will be factors in determining a school’s grade.

Skandera said the administration will ask the federal government to allow New Mexico to use the new grading plan next year instead of a federally mandated system for rating schools.

Nearly 87 percent of New Mexico schools missed the latest targets for boosting student achievement and failed this year to make “adequate yearly progress” under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

“I don’t believe that. I believe there are lots of things happening in our schools that we are not capturing and need to,” said Skandera.

The department planned to give schools a preliminary grade by the end of this year to help districts understand how the new system will work, according to an agency spokesman.

Comments from the hearing will be considered by the department in developing final rules for the grading program. Another hearing is scheduled Wednesday in Alamogordo.

Representatives of superintendents and school boards said the administration’s proposal gives too much authority to the department over spending decisions of districts with schools graded D or F. Districts will be required to implement programs recommended by the department for improving student performance.

“We feel that decisions regarding budgets and instructional expenditures in curriculum really are best left to local control,” said Rendon.

Sen. Vernon Asbill, a Carlsbad Republican and former superintendent who sponsored the grading system legislation enacted this year, said school administrators want to make sure the department “is taking the time to implement this so we don’t make mistakes that we have to dig ourselves out of at some future date.”

Asbill also said the state must adequately finance public schools. The new grading system is based on a program in Florida, which he said hired thousands of additional reading teachers to help struggling students.

Larry Langley of the New Mexico Business Roundtable urged the department to implement the grading system quickly because it will help businesses assess the quality of schools as they consider whether to move operations to New Mexico.

“We believe this system … has so much more merit in talking to companies. It has so much more merit in actually showing a snapshot of what’s going on in our schools and how our schools are really doing,” said Langley.

But teachers and others said it’s unclear that the department’s plan for evaluating schools will adequately deal with factors that districts can’t control, such as a school’s demographics and whether it has a disproportionate share of minority students, those learning to speak English and children from families living in poverty.

Lisa O’Riley, an elementary school fine arts teacher in Albuquerque, said schools face difficulties because many children lack parental support at home.

“Please don’t just be politicians. Please be children’s advocates,” O’Riley told department officials.

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