ALBUQUERQUE — Central Elementary in Artesia was a National Blue Ribbon School in 2012.

This month, Central received a D from the New Mexico Public Education Department.

State Sen. Howie Morales pointed out the wildly different ratings of Central Elementary during a legislative hearing Thursday with Hanna Skandera, secretary-designate of public education.

How can a school that was rated highly by the federal government fall so far so fast? Morales, D-Silver City, asked Skandera.

She said she would be happy to discuss with Morales the intricacies of the state's system of grading its 839 public schools.

Morales, D-Silver City, said too much of the state grading formula for schools was based on standardized tests that did not accurately measure overall performance. He wants to replace the grading formula, something that Gov. Susana Martinez has said she will not do.

Morales this year got a bill through the Legislature to revamp the school grading system so it would broaden the factors on which schools are graded. Martinez vetoed it.

Skandera and Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, appeared before the Legislative Finance Committee to talk about why schools are underperforming.

Martinez and Skandera have pushed merit pay for top-rated teachers as one way to upgrade schools. Legislators rejected that proposal last winter.

Hanushek's focus was on the performance of teachers and principals, both critical to student achievement, he said.

In a study of low-income schools in Gary, Ind., he said, outstanding teachers helped students advance the equivalent of 1 1/2 grade levels in one academic year. Under lesser teachers in the same low-income area, students improved half a grade level, he said.

Rep. Mimi Stewart said 38 of 41 school in Albuquerque that received D's and F's from Skandera's department were in impoverished neighborhoods.

Stewart, D-Albuquerque, who was a special education teacher for 30 years, said reliance on standardized tests skewed grades, and also could cause inaccurate evaluations of teachers and principals.

A different view came from state Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming.

"I wonder how many high school coaches have stayed in their job for 15 or 20 years with losing records," he said. "... Arizona outperforms us, Colorado outperforms us."

Morales said that was not true in direct comparisons.

In the Four Corners Area, where New Mexico, Utah, Arizona and Colorado meet, New Mexico schools performed better academically than most of their counterparts, Morales said.

Milan Simonich is the Santa Fe bureau chief for Texas-New Mexico Newspapers. HE can be reached at 505-820-6898. His blog is at nmcapitolreport.com.